The name John is loaded with associations. It can be the name of an individual, it can conjure the anonymity of the American John Doe (a kind of legal everyman) and it’s what clients are sometimes called when sex is a financial transaction.
In this latest show from physical theatre company DV8, John (played by Hannes Langolf) is a man born into a dysfunctional family. His father is sexually and physically abusive; his mother becomes an alcoholic. In Anna Fleische’s ingenious revolving design, the family home is a house of horrors, a place of dark rooms and narrow spaces where the family are constantly glimpsed in poses like broken plastic dolls. Later the design will transform into the corridors and bars of a prison.
DV8 Physical Theatre have always been avant-garde rule-breakers and this latest verbatim piece smashes narrative expectations. Rather than setting up a situation and then focusing on one individual, it begins with John and his appalling experiences while growing up, and just when you’ve got really interested in him, it broadens out to let us hear from the customers and owners of a gay male sauna. It’s a place where John himself is a client.
This connection leads to a quiet emotional pay-off in a piece that only glancingly explores male attitudes to sex, and the way that penetration is often confused for intimacy, and how the hunt for sex is more exciting than the actual encounter. But the narrative line is oddly unsatisfying and slightly confusing. The revelations of the men in the sauna are glib and uninvolving, set against John’s story. You just want to get back to him and find out more about his life, which is defined by many different kinds of absence.
It is quite a story, and one that offers moments of thrilling physical revelation under Lloyd Newson’s direction. By the time John is a young man, an alarming number of his siblings have perished. As his life descends into chaos, his legs become ever more bendy, so staying upright is difficult. When he enters the justice system the judge, lawyers and court psychiatrist perform a kind of bureaucratic shuffle.
His lack of real emotional connection with the women in his life is underlined by the way they are represented: simply dresses on coat-hangers. John’s story is undoubtedly compelling, but the way it is framed sells it short.
• Until 13 January 2015. Box office: 020-7452 3000. Venue: National Theatre.
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