Friday, 6 March 2009

Don John - Lowry Theatre

Don John
Director and adaptor: Emma Rice
Words and poems: Anna Maria Murphy
Composer and Musical Director: Stu Barker
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

Having recently watched the enchanting ‘Tristan & Yseult and ‘Brief Encounter’ , ‘Don John’ was eagerly anticipated. I have long been a fan of the company’s accessible and anarchic style coupled with a strong, firmly-rooted ethos.

Emma Rice’s adaptation of the famous Don John / Giovanni story has been transferred to 1978 England. As always, Kneehigh and Stu Barker have produced a fantastic soundtrack t
o accompany their work. Unfortunately, despite the vivid and energetic music; this production generally lacks the endearing and uplifting force of previous shows. Kneehigh are undoubtedly a hugely creative and innovative company and whilst this usually complements their work, the problem with this production is that the story of Don John is completely lost amidst numerous diversions and shoe-horning in of contemporary references.

The adaptation in its essence is strong
– the play text transfers fairly seamlessly to the winter of discontent, book-ended with radio reports featuring Jim Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher. However this adaptation doesn’t quite seem to transfer to the stage. There are obvious attempts to modernize the text mainly through popular culture references ranging from the Grange Hill theme tune music to John Travolta and the Brothers Gibb. However, these references appear contrived and only seem to add to the slow and fragmented feel of the piece.

There are some moments of beautiful creativity. The simple flapping of books -although very reminiscent of Complicite’s ‘Street of Crocodiles’ - and the use of balloons in the final fight scene are effective. Yet there were too many less successful and lackluster gimmicks throughout the production. This would have been fine if the actual storytelling had been clearer; however, because the substance was lacking, the various gimmicks and predictable physical sequences didn’t drive the story forward and merely felt gratuitous.

In terms of performances, the ensemble and musicians put in a sterling effort. The musical and narration skills of Stu Barker are evident and he provides a much needed lift to proceedings. Craig Johnson paints an empathetic and subtle picture as the undersexed and over-eager vicar Derek whilst Carl Gross’s Alan displays some nice moments of physical comedy. Zerlina is also re-imagined as a sexy Polish cleaner and is played with amazing physicality and charm by Patrycia Kujawska. Crucially, however, I never quite believed the sexual magnetism, charisma and predatory nature of Don John (Gisi Orn Gardarsson). The physical seduction sequence between him and Zerlina appeared lifeless and awkward.

The set design by Vicki Mortimer is more succ
essful. The multi functional use of the portable container truck for the story's shifting scenes of seduction works well and the words beings spelt out on the fairground big wheel to complement the action of the scene is a nice touch.

Being a big Kneehigh fan, this has been a difficult review to write. Perhaps I saw an off night. It even struck me at one point that maybe I was missing something or had become too cynical to appreciate the Kneehigh style.

However, after speaking to some young A-Level students at the interval, I certainly wasn’t alone. This could have been a wonderful production. However on the night something felt a little off-kilter. Perhaps it was the joyful interaction with the audience that was missing from this piece (I remember looking around the auditorium when watching Tristan and Yseult and being enthralled by the fact that this small group of actors from Cornwall had the entire audience - young and old alike - eating out of their hands. It was a magical experience). There is a lovely moment at the end of Don John when the audience are invited to smooch along with the actors to the strains of "Just the Way You Are". Unfortunately this came too late in the evening to redeem this production.
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