[All images credited to Laurent Philippe/DV8]
Seminal cutting-edge physical theatre company DV8, under the masterful direction of Lloyd Newson, use verbatim recorded material to create a hard-hitting examination of life on the edge. Its examination of male sexuality does not shy away from the darker more disturbing aspects of John’s experiences. His dysfunctional family are described with the utmost of scrutiny including his violent and abusive father, the alcoholic kleptomaniac mother, and John’s own substance misuse and petty criminality.
There are lighter moments amongst the stark realism, like when each of John’s lovers are said to be all ending in the letter ‘A’. They are then depicted with a frock over a coat-hanger for each one, like a butterfly collector. But there are also recounts of child neglect and then John’s almost inevitable imprisonment, for crimes that he cannot even remember due to a drug and drink-fuelled blackout. On the inside he takes up an extreme exercise regime which remedies the obesity that came from his previous lifestyle. When released he gets on the straight and narrow and even makes up with his estranged son for a while at least.
Then the scene changes to the owners of a gay sauna and the revelatory shocks come thick and fast. Most of us have some sort of idea of such sordid scenes but this is a real eye-opener. There are descriptions of total depravity and dangerous sex and, quite matter-of-factly, images of venereal diseases are flashed on the stage, as if the narrative was not enough of a turn-off already.
But then we are back to John who is now coming to terms with his identity as a gay man. After the preceding scenes we almost fear that he may become another punter in some wild orgy but he is more discerning than that by far. We are left with the positive notion that he may have learned from his mistakes and now has a second chance to start again.
The scene changes, provided by the use of a revolving set, are seamless and incredibly well-executed, with a design to die for. The ensemble performance over some 75 minutes is simply breath-taking, if deliberately repetitious. The show is a success on so many levels with a frankness that really engages you with the action and a clarity that comes through despite all the many complexities of the narrative. Even if you have no direct experience of some of the issues faced by John, you will still identify and empathise with his ordeals. This is a deliberately harsh and gritty realistic tale told with inventive and incredibly effective style, another succès de scandale for DV8.
John played at West Yorkshire Playhouse from 22 to 24 October, see here for more info.