“What is that unforgettable line?” – Samuel Beckett
A double play day is one of life’s joys. It’s hard to beat the thrill of zipping up to London for a matinee, then barely pausing for breath (or dinner) before taking in an evening performance, before navigating the notoriously unreliable train back home. This week I’m on holiday, and entirely lacking in motivation to crack on with work, I made the spontaneous decision to catch ‘Limehouse’ in its final week at the Donmar, and the raffish David Tennant as Don Juan.
First up, the Donmar. For me, the Donmar is having a superb run of plays (see also the Almeida), and I loved ‘One Night in Miami’, ‘Saint Joan’, and many others there over the past few months. There was certainly a more mature vibe to this Donmar audience, but the subject matter is clearly a nostalgic one!
A man in a dressing gown sits at his kitchen table, surrounded by papers. It’s 4am but he doesn’t seem tired. The Donmar audience files in, and the man paces a little, reading from his papers, thinking hard.
This is Tom Goodman-Hill as David Owen, the ambitious and (here at least) ruthlessly determined Labour MP who plans to form a brand new political party, thereby breaking the grip of a two party system, and addressing the issues that Labour is consciously avoiding. The parallels to our modern political wranglings were not lost on the audience, and there were many chuckles as characters complained about a vicious female Tory PM, Europe, and an ineffectual Labour opposition. The political and personal discussions that make up the play are a condensed version of the machinations that led to the formation of the SDP in 1981 (and all over a delicious-smelling macaroni cheese, from the unknown Delia Smith).
It’s a gem of a cast. The superb Roger Allam is fantastic as Roy Jenkins, all fastidiousness and soft rs, with Debra Gillett a smart, sharp Shirley Williams. The delightful Paul Chahidi brings both a comic edge (this exercises to ease a bad back are side-splitting) and also profoundly moving, when he breaks down at the thought of the ill will that a split from Labour will cause.
The play has had mixed reviews, and an average of three stars from the major papers. This is a shame, and (in my opinion) feels like a reaction to a calmly paced thinkpiece about politics, loyalty, and friendship. Not every play can be action packed, and the quality of the performances alone deserves a higher rating. I particularly enjoyed the role given to Debbie Owen (the marvellous Nathalie Armin), a skilful negotiator and peacemaker, who is given a lights-up monologue posing the irresistible ‘what if?’ question.
As we all filed out, I thought about the young people who stood with me at the back of the circle, and wondered if, in 30 years time, we would enter the Donmar, with our own white hair, to see a play about the Milibands’ familial wrangles, or Corbyn’s leadership contests.
Next up, a chance to see the wonderfully charismatic David Tennant back on stage. Several years ago, he was the closest to perfect Hamlet that I’ve yet seen, and was a striking and moving Richard II back at the RSC some years later. I had heard that he is on particularly rakish form in ‘Don Juan in Soho’, so I grabbed a cheap ticket in the Royal Circle, and entered the beautiful Wyndham’s Theatre.
It’s a rather unusual play, to say the least. The eponymous anti-hero swaggers and lusts his way through life, utterly without remorse, having ‘liaisons’ with women, men – he isn’t fussy! – and utterly neglecting his new wife. His chaffeur and keeper of the database, played by a super Adrian Scarborough, longs to be free from his master’s immoral actions, but finds himself clinging on to the glamour and adventure.
Tennant plays the role just right – that kilowatt smile buys himself a place in beautiful women’s beds, and in the audience’s hearts, despite his unrepentant behaviour. Even when a statue (superbly realised) warms him of his imminent death, he only feigns repentance, and his end, shocking at that moment, is soon forgotten in a delightfully fizzy and upbeat dance routine at the end.
Overall, ‘Don Juan’ is a good night out, and David Tennant is always worth seeing on stage. It’s light, bright, frothy and filthy fun!