Don John @ BAC, London

cast list
Gisli Orn Gardarsson, Mike Shepherd, Patrycja Kujawska, Nina Dogg Filippusdottir, Amy Marston, David Mynne, Carl Grose, Craig Johnson

directed by
Emma Rice
I still remember the thrill and pleasure I felt on seeing Kneehigh’s stage version of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus.

It didn’t matter that vast chunks of plot were missing or that the American journalist had somehow become Icelandic or that the lithe creature they had playing Fevvers, the winged woman, was much too young for the role, they had somehow managed to capture something of the essence of the book, its music, its spirit.

Certain moments the spinning mirror, the final impossible aerial dance still live in my memory and are amongst the most potent I have seen on stage.
It wasn’t a perfect production, far from it, and even while sitting raptly in the stalls I was aware of that, but it managed to honour the book on which it was based, whilst at the same time creating a world that was totally, gloriously theatrical. I loved it and I loved Kneehigh for making this wonderful thing.

But, as is often the way of things, no subsequent production of theirs has quite replicated that same magic. Of course that was the first Kneehigh production I’d seen and therefore everything the integration of music into the weave of the piece, the embracing of circus techniques and puppetry felt, if not entirely original, than at least fresh and exciting in context. Yet it was some of these very same devices that I would find jarring and alienating in their later production of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death. They seemed to be forever dipping their hands into the same bag, shuffling the contents a little, but adding nothing new.

Sometimes this approach reaps rewards, as in their appealingly playful staging of Brief Encounter, but even then there is still this growing, inescapable sense of repetition, of the recycling of old ideas. Their latest production, Don John, a tale of serial seduction loosely based on Mozart’s Don Giovanni, encapsulates this.

As ever, the attention to detail, the attention given to peripheral things, is delightful. The production is set in the late 1970s and, outside the theatre, men in 1970s leather jackets lounge on dodgy motors and pass comment on the arriving audience; inside the theatre there are 1970s newspapers in the bar where you can, if you so wish, order a pre-show snowball. Then the show starts. And there are, to be fair, moments of inspiration and invention, but they are few and far between. Vicki Mortimer’s set does, however, look incredible, a huge multi-level creation full of shipping crates and neon, and the space itself the BAC Great Hall is also glorious, especially when starlit by a dangling disco mirror ball.

There is, inevitably, quite a lot of sex in this production, it could hardly be avoided the raw, hungry grinding of bodies and the tearing of clothes but the main sense is one of grubbiness, of seediness. It is oddly difficult to feel much for these women, seduced and tossed aside, forgotten and reduced to wine-sucking desperation as John moves on to another conquest, or, for that matter, for their bemused, cuckolded husbands.

Part of the problem is that Gisli Orn Gardarsson’s John, in his oversized navy jumper, is neither charismatic nor repellent enough to convince as this seducer. Carl Grose as amiable buffoon Alan fares a little better, but it was still difficult to feel much for him as his beloved fiance Zerlina succumbed to John’s supposed charms. Regular Kneehigh collaborator Stu Barker’s dirge-like musical numbers did little to give life to proceedings, and if anything weighted things down.

There remain a few small moments of visual inspiration that remind you of how good Kneehigh can be, and have been, but the alchemy of their earlier worlds has not been recreated here.

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