★★★☆☆ Lyttelton Theatre
When Lloyd Newson, director of verbatim physical theatre company DV8, wanted to create a play about male attitudes towards love and sexuality, he interviewed fifty volunteers. But from the moment John walked in and told his tale, Newson knew he had to change tack. John’s father was a rapist, his mother a depressed shoplifter who overdosed. He lost one brother to heroin, another in a car crash. And John himself, after recovering from drug abuse, went to prison for arson, where he took a degree and discovered his homosexuality.
It would be easy to sensationalise John’s life, to turn it into a tabloid rant about Broken Britain or a self-pitying melodrama. But his disarming candour, admirably conveyed by Hannes Langolf, keeps it empathetic and engrossing. While his voice remains frank, Langolf’s body gibbers and twitches in the throes of heroin or shuffles around the courtroom like a wind-up doll. His unrelenting athleticism is matched by his ability to truly inhabit his character, whose monologue carries half the play. When we hear the recorded voice of the real John at the end, the transition is seamless.
Anna Fleischle’s set, an almost constantly rotating network of interconnected rooms, is versatile and expressive – when John’s father sexually assaults his sister, for instance, it turns away, evoking the suppression of painful memories. Complimented by Richard Godin’s lighting design, it convinces as blighted households, prison and a gay bathhouse. The sound, directed by Gareth Fry, is potent and inventive, transforming snatches of pop classics into ironic commentaries on the action.
But John is a play of two halves. While focused on our protagonist, it is captivating. When other voices enter, the spell is broken. The tone becomes moralistic, with hectoring discussions of unsafe sex, HIV and drugs. These holdovers from Newson’s research could have made an interesting piece if developed independently, but by drowning out John they grind the show to a halt. It’s a great shame, as John’s story is contemporary theatre at its most crucial, creative and compelling.