Review of physical contemporary dance company DV8 tour with their new project, John, at The Quarry Theatre in Leeds

by Leo Owen

Artistic Director, Lloyd Newman asked 50 men a series of questions about love and sex. From these interviews, one man’s frank story of a criminal past dominated by domestic abuse and care homes captured Newman’s imagination. Drug dependency, sexual awakening and obesity all became the basis of this bold new show, placing John at its centre, intertwining other stories with his own.

Anna Fleischle’s clever set design revolves centre stage as John’s story unfolds. A cross-section of a house with three rooms and a narrow central corridor gradually rotates to reveal separate compartments of John’s life as a first person narrator begins by very candidly talking through his dysfunctional family life: his abused sister is locked in one bedroom to stop her from getting fatter while his bare-bottomed brother is strapped to a bed in another room. Meanwhile the voice of John matter-of-factly remembers "him bleeding from the ears" after his father beat his brother with a belt. He recalls his mother only leaving the house to play bingo and coming home one day to find his father having sex with another woman, only to be kicked out and later return to rape their babysitter.

Although much of John’s story is a depressing one of survival in the face of adversity, there are moments of bittersweet humour. He recalls how when he went into care he was "quite pleased" and his mother using her children as cover while she shoplifted school uniforms to sell onto the neighbours half price. His affectionate recollection of all his exes whose names ended in "a" is cleverly and humorously brought to life by John putting different styled clothes on hangers dangled on wires from the ceiling.

Radio music accompanies these lighter reminiscences before we’re plunged into darker years again when John starts a support group only to witness 14 dying in quick succession, resulting in him turning to alcohol and food for support. Ballooning to 25 stone, he’s diagnosed with depression, loses a close friend to HIV and gets 28 convictions for 65 offences. It’s only in prison that he’s able to gain control again through exercise, an Open University course and reconnecting with his estranged son.

From here, the focus of John shifts to a gay sauna where we’re privy to scenes that at first seem like entirely unrelated amusing and light-hearted monologues. There’s some graphic on-stage nudity, clever swing dance choreography and hard-hitting visual representation of how an HIV sufferer’s body degenerates. Interspersed with personal moments of truth are exceedingly funny tales of sauna etiquette or lack of!

Newman’s choreography is so clever at times it’s like watching a magic trick, impossible to fathom how his cast are able to manipulate their bodies in such a way. Actors stumble about the stage in synch, depicting the different stages of a heroine user losing control; a scene describing the judge's sentencing, including witness testimonies is particularly well done with smoke, torch light, fire and sirens for flashbacks and a later prison scene illustrating his new addiction to fitness likely includes a trampoline to symbolise his new-found zest for life.

Watching John, it’s no wonder the show comes with an age restriction and warning of “adult themes, strong language and nudity”. It is full of extremes cleverly woven together and stands out as unlike any other dance show previously conceived as spoken word is central to its performance. Credit to Newman and his talented ensemble for creating provocative but beautiful, raw but slick theatre, sure to both inspire and amuse international audiences whose lives it’ll undoubtedly touch.