Don Juan in Soho
by Patrick Marber
(after Don Juan by Moliere)
Directed by Patrick Marber
Wyndham’s Theatre, London
Saturday 1st April 2017, 14.30
David Tennant (Don Juan, now DJ)
Adrian Scarborough (Stan)
Gawn Grainger (Louis)
Theo Barklem-Biggs (Pete)
Mark Ebulué (Aloysius)
Mark Extance (ensemble)
David Jonsson (Col)
Dominique Moore (Lottie)
Emma Naomi (ensemble)
Alice Orr-Ewing (Mattie and Ruby)
Himesh Patel (Vagabond)
Adrian Richards (ensemble)
William Spray (ensemble)
Danielle Vitalis (Elvira)
Eleanor Wyld (Dalia)
Patrick Marber’s play is far enough away to be a true original, but even so stays reasonably close to the events in Moliere’s 1665 original Dom Juan. It was first produced in 2006 at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Michael Grandage, with Rhys Ifans in the title role, and no I didn’t see it. You have to be local, and a “Friend” and lucky to get tickets for that theatre. A decade later, it’s at the much larger Wyndham’s Theatre with David Tennant in the lead role. Patrick Marber, with his much-acclaimed direction of Travesties still playing in London, gets to direct it himself this time … it’s every writer’s dream. We know we can do our own stuff better but no one lets us … well enough of me. Marber has updated the text with contemporary references, and shifted Elvira’s brothers from Irish to Afro-Carribbean.
It starts with an ensemble rendition of Don Giovanni (all the same story), plus dance, then we have Stan (Adrian Scarborough), Don Juan’s gofer, chauffeur and dogsbody in dialogue with Col, who is DJ’s very recent brother-in-law. They’re in the lobby of a luxury hotel. Don Juan has deserted his new wife Elvira at the end of their honeymoon, saying he was going out to buy some cigarettes, then disappeared to bed with a Croatian supermodel. Stan describes what was going on when he opened the bedroom door in graphic detail.
Stan (Adrian Scarborough) spills the beans
For a first scene, it holds us in suspense, because we are all waiting for David Tennant’s inevitable arrival as Don Juan, or rather “DJ”. The casting is inspired. Michael Grandage did just the same when he cast Jude Law as Henry V. In their different ways, Henry V and Don Juan are characters who must exude tangible charisma, who can sway people to their wishes. Like Jude Law, David Tennant imports “known” charisma from his roles outside the play, and his known personality and charm. So Tennant doesn’t have to create a charismatic role … the charisma instantly walks on with him.
Enter DJ (David Tennant)
For the whole production, right to the last minute Tennant and Adrian Scarborough as Stan are a natural double act. Tennant immediately takes control. He playfully snogs poor Stan, then gropes and pats him cheerfully. As DJ chats to Stan he lights cigarettes, has them collected by a staff member with a “No Smoking” ashtray, apologises charmingly and profusely, and immediately lights another as she walks away.
Lottie (Dominique Moore) is wooed by DJ
DJ (Don Juan) has decided to seduce a newlywed (Alice Orr-Ewing), getting her virginity before her husband. He mimes a conversation with the husband, who he has just met at the hotel urinal, switching his finger space as he recounts their peeing conversation, to indicate the groom’s penis (tiny) and his, (enormous). He gets to her by causing a boat crash on the Thames, and we switch to the hospital where the survivors are sitting. There’s Stan in the middle, wrapped in a blanket. The groom is in a coma. While Don Juan is being fellated under a blanket by Lottie (Dominique Moore), a girl he’s just met, he hits on the bride simultaneously, trying to disguise his orgasm as he’s chatting her up. Hilarious, and very crude.
DJ in the park (David Tennant)
We switch to a park, where Stan and DJ are trying to find some Rizla papers to roll a joint. They scrounge some papers from a Middle Eastern rough sleeper (Hamish Patel). They all have Rizla papers, opines DJ.
Marber does not avoid either controversy or offence. He reinstates a a scene Moliere had to cut on the church’s orders in 1665, where DJ bribes the down- and-out to blaspheme, only now it’s a Muslim homeless man rather than a Catholic beggar, and the words he wants him to say are as offensive as you can get. Twerp was the least of them. The C-word appears, as it does several times in the play, though to be fair, we heard it more often on the train back to Bournemouth on a post-football Saturday evening afterwards. And that was a group of girls. It was risky in the context here (Domenic Cavendish’s review calls it “misguided”), though in the end the rough sleeper refuses steadfastly to blaspheme.
Aloysius (Mark Ebulué) fights DJ. Col (David Jonsson) looks on.
As in the original, a fight has broken out and DJ leaps into the wings to save the person being assailed, who turns out to be Col, his brother-in-law. Then the bigger brother-in-law, Aloysius, turns up too. There’s a good stand off martial arts piece between the two, before big and tough Aloyius (Mark Ebulué) threatens DJ with a large knife.
At the end of the scene, and act one, the statue of Charles II comes to life and warns DJ that his end is “tomorrow.” DJ and Stan think it’s the dope … they’re both playing very stoned. A mic descends from on high, and we have DJ singing the standard Under A Blanket of Blue (Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong) and then Stan joining him to make it a duet. Very well they both did, too. A major point.
At the interval, we were both feeling that the play was very funny, but somewhat disjointed, and there were a couple of definite flat spots. In particular, the bride, Elvira, and her brother, Col, have to be so sincerely innocent that most would hate to be cast in the roles. Their contrast is needed, but the pace drops for both.
Michael Billington’s review suggests it would play better with no interval, and it is the magic 100 minutes, 20 minutes shorter than the Young Vic played without interval the evening before. We were in the front row of the circle with no legroom at all, so disagree … we were greatly relieved to stand up and stretch.
The second part was both shorter and also better. Bringing on DJ’s dad helps, as Gawn Grainger is such a fine actor.
DJ at full on rant
It culminates in a fabulous and lengthy rant by DJ against every kind of cant and hypocrisy, from bankers who rob banks to so-called patriots who are racists, to a world leader who looks like an orangutang (massive applause from the audience) then he adds “priests who pray,” Stan does a wide-eyed double take, after all, what’s wrong with priests who pray, so DJ has to hiss “with an E”. Earlier Donald Trump got another hit with “I’m not a rapist – I don’t grab pussy’ from DJ to more applause. The point is that while he is a total bastard, we can agree with his tirade. DJ is an aristocrat out of his time frame … at one point he waxes nostalgic about Soho in the old days when he could buy hash, a blow-job, get a taxi home and still have change from a tenner. He explains that Soho! comes from the old hunting cry of fox hunters (apparently this is true)… he sees himself as the hunter, and women as the foxes.
In the end, DJ is carried off to his death in the sort of irritating taxi-rickshaw that invades the pavements outside Covent Garden theatres in the evenings. No plot spoilers, but it is a magnificent theatrical moment.
Tennant and Scarborough both give bravura brilliant performances. Tennant is languid, predatory, sexually charismatic to women, autistic, without any conscience whatsoever.
Possibly the play seems a little lightweight for Tennant’s talent, or is it hovering too much between comedy and seriousness? The original has its stern moral message with Don Juan confined to the flames of hell. There is an issue with broad comedy, and the message which resonates far less with modern audiences than it did in 1665.
We also thought overall that the music and dance scenes were so excellent, that Marber could and should have leaned further towards a musical and had more of them. Walk on By in the first half, a full I Got The Music In Me in the second, as a finale were done superbly. We noted the choreography, Danielle Vitalis (Elvira) was placed centrally for the start of the long dance finale, which is where you place your leader … the most accomplished dancer, though everyone was good, as they are nowadays.
Tennant was such a convincing Don Juan, likeable even at his most loathsome, and Scarborough such a fine sidekick. Adrian Scarborough, last seen by us as the Fool to Simon Russell-Beale’s King Lear, could corner the market in comedy sidekicks.
The two have chemistry, and in the script, there is no reward for Stan’s loyalty. DJ is as incapable of reciprocating Stan’s loyal friendship as he is paying his salary.
It had a “three quarters standing ovation” at the end which is very good going for London. We were wavering to the naysayers among the critics at half time, but overall:
MUSIC CREDITS – *****
At last … this is how EVERY theatre should be doing it:
Sadly it’s nearly a first for a non-musical. All the music listed in detail in the programme! A five star programme decision for me. They give performer, writer and publisher too. This is how I know the disco version of Walk On By (the version of which I was wondering about) was performed by the Don Juan in Soho Company. I already knew it was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. They also perform Memories Can’t Wait from Talking Heads, written by David Byrne and Jerry Harrison. They even list the post-curtain play out music, My Sweet Lord by George Harrison. And the last song before curtain up, which was Bryan Ferry’s version of The In Crowd, deliberately timed to end as the curtain rose. Roxy Music got two more … it’s definitely a 1970s inspired soundtrack.
I knew Kiki Dee’s 1974 hit I’ve Got The Music In Me (written by Bias Boshell … I’m enjoying this!) but many people won’t, and it was SO infectious and danced to so well, that younger audience members will want to go out and buy it, sorry showing my age, stream it.
This is long overdue in theatre programmes. I suspect that having a writer as director helps with attitudes to credit. It made me wonder if he had initially envisaged the action in the 1970s, but it might just be stuff he knows and likes.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID
Paul Taylor, The Independent *****
Michael Billington, The Guardian ****
Anne Treneman, The Times ****
Sarah Crompton, What’s On Stage ****
Quentin Letts, Daily Mail ***
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard ***
Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out, ***
Domenic Cavendish, The Telegraph **
Mark Shenton, The Stage **
LINKS ON THIS BLOG
Richard II, RSC, 2013
King Lear, National Theatre 2014 (The Fool)
The Entertainer, by John Osborne, Branagh Theatre Company 2016