After a 10-year break, theater-goers in London have another chance to take in Patrick Marber’s Don Juan in Soho, an update of Moliere’s 1665 play. It’s difficult to think of Don Juan these days without remembering the Commendatore scene of the famous opera Don Giovanni. Indeed, Marber’s play takes it head-on with those familiar notes from Mozart before vaulting straight into the 21st century with a dose of heavy techno beats and masked dancers at the start.
It’s difficult to resist David Tennant’s charming and at times, electrifying performance as contemporary libertine DJ. DJ is likable and hilarious in spite of the horrible deeds he commits: cheating on his new wife (Danielle Vitalis), getting oral sex from one woman while trying to hit on another, and withholding wages from his valet (Adrian Scarborough). This plot succeeds primarily because these episodes are built on farce. A statue of Charles II also lingers in the background, an ominous reminder that DJ will get what he deserves in the end.
Stan the valet warns the audience about DJ, insisting, “Please don’t be charmed, he’s not a lovable rogue.” He wants to leave DJ, but he can’t help but be drawn in by the repeated promises of a share in DJ’s adventures. Ultimately, this bromance is one of the play’s strongest aspects, best illustrated by a song-and-dance routine by Tennant and Scarborough. The two have splendid onstage chemistry and it would be great to see them together in another stage production, television show, or film. Rounding out the trio of seasoned and talented cast is Gawn Grainger (The Entertainer), who portrays DJ’s long-suffering father, Louis.
Don Juan in Soho falters slightly a couple of times. For me, the hardest scene to watch was when DJ tried to get a Muslim to blaspheme. That’s a precarious tightrope to walk, given the recent tensions internationally, but Marber steers us back to safe ground at the last second. DJ’s tirade about society’s obsession with self-aggrandizement via social media touched on some good points and garnered a few laughs, but seemed too long. The significance of the statue was not entirely clear either, answering DJ’s question (“What are you?”) with a single word: “recognition.”
Soho is perfect as the location for this updated play, since that part of the West End of London was known for its nightlife. The interiors are much more visually resplendent than the exterior scenes – for example, a large reproduction of Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus at the club where Louis is staying. Doom and gloom hangs brilliantly over that hilarious bonding moment between the father, son, and (yes) valet.
The standout piece in the exteriors is the Charles II statue. The real one is located a mere 10 minutes away from the theater. However, I would have preferred to see more on the stage to distinguish the setting as Soho. Still, the statue (or the costumed person as the statue) is impressive together with the smoke, sound, and light effects. Tennant climbs onto a fantastic bicycle rickshaw that hurtles above the stage before DJ faces a terrible end at the hands of his vengeful in-laws.
Overall, Marber’s play is a welcome addition to the lore surrounding Don Juan. Tennant and Scarborough are on point with their performances and will keep audiences rolling with laughter. Keep in mind that the recommended age for attendees is 16 and older because of the mature content.
Don Juan in Soho will playing at Wyndham’s Theatre through June 10 at Charing Cross Road, London. Tickets can be obtained online and through the box office.