Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Theatre review: Don Juan in Soho

Having heard there was a stage left in London without one of his shows on it, Patrick Marber directs a revival of his Don Juan in Soho at Wyndham's. A modern relocation of Molière's Don Juan, it does stick to blank verse and a sometimes stylised turn of phrase in among the text speak and swearing. David Tennant plays DJ, heir to an earldom who, with no real demands on his time, chooses to spend all of it chasing after sex. Although he's happy enough to pay for it, he takes particular pleasure in pursuit and corruption, and in the opening scene has just returned from honeymoon: Having pursued the virginal Elvira (Danielle Vitalis) for two years and married her just to get her into bed, he's now got what he wanted and has cheerfully broken her heart, telling her he wants a divorce after a fortnight.

After putting a groom in a coma so he can shag the bride, DJ gets a rude awakening when, stoned in a park, a statue appears to come to life and warn him he only has 24 hours to live - he determines to spend it the way he has every other day, and atone for nothing.

Marber's production has the cheesiest of starts, as Mozart's version of the story - music from Don Giovanni recurs throughout the evening - is suddenly replaced by dance music and the eerie, masked figures in white who've been stalking the stage turn into clubbers. The play dates from eleven years ago but even then I have a feeling this attempt to open with a "this is a classical story BUT WE'VE MADE IT COOL!" would have felt dated and a bit desperate. Overall these attempts to use the supporting cast as a chorus are the most awkward part of the evening: Marber-as-director seems a lot more comfortable guiding his actors straightforwardly through his own dialogue than when trying to be Rupert Goold, and the songs, dance and moody nods to the play's supernatural element feel tacked on. There's even a big song-and-dance curtain call like in a musical.

His script is where he comes off better, the viciousness of many of the jokes coming through Tennant's typically charming and energetic performance which has to suggest how someone as openly unpleasant as DJ can be so successful with women (and occasionally men, we're told, but don't actually see anything other than the odd joking flirtation.) Perhaps even more ambiguous is Adrian Scarborough's Stan, DJ's chauffeur and the only character to break the fourth wall, who is very likeable and makes a lot of pleas for his master to repent his ways, but is essentially just parasitically trying to benefit from DJ's lifestyle. Scarborough is winning as ever, and in an audience audibly excited to see Tennant on stage, very quickly won them over.

Also getting their moment in the spotlight are Theo Barklem-Biggs and Dominique Moore as a young couple whose bickering DJ quickly takes advantage of, while David Jonsson and Mark Ebulué as Elvira's vengeful brothers provide a background threat he never takes as seriously as he should; Gawn Grainger as his father doesn't really get enough to do to make much of an impact though. This ends up being one of those shows that didn't quite click with me for reasons I couldn't pin down: Anna Fleischle's set succeeds at the mix of modern, classic and atmospheric that the production doesn't really nail elsewhere, and there's a lot of good jokes, with the fact that the writer is directing meaning he gets to update a lot of them (although the Trump references, which twice got spontaneous applause tonight, feel like a bit of a cheap attempt to get exactly that reaction.) And indeed DJ's feeling that he has nothing to apologise for in the context of how other people abuse their power strikes a topical chord, but I still didn't feel that there was much beyond a star turn to justify reviving this play.

Don Juan in Soho by Patrick Marber, based on Don Juan by Molière, is booking until the 10th of June at Wyndham's Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval*.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.

*Possibly taking inspiration from the time ticking down to DJ's death, the production follows Oresteia in having a timed interval. Which is all very well and to be encouraged if you actually follow through with this and start Act 2 when the clock runs down; not so much when, as here, the clock reaches zero then just stays on it for another five minutes.

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