Don Juan in Soho
By Patrick Marber
Wyndham's Theatre, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
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There is no doubting that Patrick Marber is a great writer and David Tennant a dazzling star, but this play is a turkey. Since Don Juan first appeared in Tirso de Molina's play in 1626 (dazzlingly staged by the RSC with Linus Roache by the way) it has had thousands of incarnations including Molière's 1665 play (on which this is based) and of course the Mozart-Da Ponte opera Don Giovanni.
Here Marber turns into in a 60's style sex farce which totally unbalances it as a drama. Updating Don Juan is always tall order. Its power came from exploring how a wilful rake risked eternal damnation, back when that really meant something. In today's world, where no such impediment exists, his relentless pursuit of selfish gratification just gets tiresome. But making it a farce does worse damage in that it varnishes it with a layer of Anglo Saxon prudery. This is the world of Are You Being Served or Terry and June with the priapic Jack-the-lad, the moany frigid wife, the spluttering old duffer of a father and lots of luscious lovelies running about in scanties. In a nod to 'liberation' a few of these are now also black and male. Despite all this it is about as sexy as an Ann Summers shop in Slough the morning after a flood. Here the virtuous are dull prigs and the devil gets all the best gags. All very comforting, smug and conservative.
It's the classic cautionary tale. DJ is a sex addict who piles outrage upon outrage abandoning his newly married bride for a Croatian supermodel and using and betraying everyone in his wake. When we get to his big self-justificatory speech, (the world is all corrupt so why can't I do what I like, and at least I'm not a hypocrite), it has as much weight as the words of a gobby teenager shouting at his parents before he slams his bedroom door in their faces.
Locating the play in Soho no longer works either. Eleven years ago, when this was premiered at the Donmar, Soho still could claim some edge as a seedy sex haunt. Gentrification and Westminster Council have put a stop to all that so now even this aspect of the play is a curious historical footnote.
Tennant is what will put bums on seats here and he does deliver. He has the swagger, if not the musculature, of Errol Flynn and he attacks Marber's delightfully erudite wordplay with great relish. He also possesses the timing of a great stand-up comedian. Adrian Scarborough, probably our best character actor, fleshes out the role of Stan, the loyal manservant, with real skill despite it being a class archetype. Gawn Grainger too enjoys giving us his angry old Colonel routine, straight from Central Casting.
Marber also directs and throws all the tricks at it, from projections to a flying rickshaw, although designer Anna Fleischle must have been having an off-day here. He keeps the pace up too although this is hijacked by some excruciating 'movement' sequences. It ends which a 'send-em-home-humming' dance curtain number like you'd get coming out of Jersey Boys.