Review – Behind the Beautiful Forevers / John, National Theatre

Saturday 22 November 2014

GE DIGITAL CAMERAMisery time at the National.

Just think, you could go and see a matinee of Behind the Beautiful Forevers and John in the evening and come out feeling thoroughly depressed. For that would be the better way round; the latter is shorter than the former’s Act 1.

Now to be fair, Phil saw BTBF at an early preview last week and didn’t make it past the interval. Rufus Norris‘ production felt (possibly deliberately) scrappy at this point. Judging by enthusiastic reviews it is (possibly) shorter now and much more beautifully formed.

David Hare‘s version of Katherine Boo‘s apparently meticulously researched book about Annawadi, a shanty town by Mumbai’s airport teems with life and death and is performed against an understandably ugly set strewn with litter (and more cascading from above). Characters struggle to survive, sifting through the debris to earn money from the rubbish whilst coping with bribery, corruption, violence, injustice, self-immolation and home improvements.

It certainly wasn’t awful, but despite an impressive and massive all-Asian cast, Phil struggled to care. Even Meera Syal‘s wheeler-dealer mother, trying desperately to secure some sort of a decent life for her family, failed to make him care. Only Hiran Abeysekera‘s engagingly charismatic Sunil – who makes cash from trash – managed to prick Phil’s conscience.

The book’s subtitle: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity suggests there was a ray of hope in Act 2 but by then Phil was in the bar raising his spirits as he experienced a wonderful play-related misunderstanding.

A friend, Kieran, had rung in the late afternoon and said he was going to the Southbank that evening to see John Waters at the Royal Festival Hall.

Phil: Hairspray John Waters? (as if there was another)

K: Yes.

P: I’ll be on the Southbank too.

K: What are you seeing?

P: David Hare’s play.

When Phil met up with him for a drink afterwards the conversation continued.

K: So why did you leave Hairspray at the interval?

P: No, not Hairspray. David Hare’s play!

Phil had low expectations for John, playing in the Lyttelton auditorium next door, which has opened to decidedly John_poster_notitle_v2mixed reviews and had one particular critic frothing at the mouth.

A co-production with dance/physical theatre company DV8, written (although the dialogue is from verbatim interviews) and conceived by Lloyd Newsom. It concentrates – surprisingly enough – largely on John (Hannes Langolf), a working-class, nothern chappie and his background of physical abuse, rape, incest, addiction, obesity, imprisonment and promiscuity. Plenty to scare the horses here – and much of it in the first few minutes – and not a tap number in sight.

Played out on a revolve (design Anna Fleischle) which only occasionally stops – whilst the setting is changed cleverly and subtly behind the scenes – under crepuscular lighting (Richard Godin) the performers also have to deliver the dialogue whilst performing jerky movements or contorting their bodies into seemingly impossible positions.

Initially there’s little one could call dance, though the moves get more intricate and impressive as the piece continues. John’s voice, as he takes us through his life, is almost an emotionless monotone but with just enough wry inflection to keep you engaged.

There’s an impressive scene where John talks us through his former heterosexual relationships, each simply but brilliantly represented by a dress hung on coat hangers which descend one by one from the flies. Despite the depressing story there’s flashes of humour, particularly the way John takes physical exercise in prison to fight his apparent (the performer is fit as a tick naturally) ballooning size, some amusingly witty shuffling as John is interviewed by police and a psychotherapist, and a how-did-they-do-that moment where John leans at Little Titch style impossible angles and then walks off (Phil had assumed his shoes were somehow nailed to the stage). Plus there’s scenes where TV’s The Golden Shot is played on the telly as John takes a sardonic angle on one of Bob Monkhouse’s potentially creepy lines.

The biggest problem is, that about half way through this 75 minute piece, it shifts to a gay sauna, not because it’s explicit, but because John – who is now dancing, not just on a revolve, but also at the other end of the ballroom – all but disappears and the focus shifts from the man we’ve invested so much in, is all but replaced by unrestrained accounts of the sauna’s shenanigans and a few flashes of bum and willy to satisfy those who don’t get out much. There’s also a strong argument against unprotected sex, which is laudable, but watered down as it comes over as a heavy-handed lecture.

Still, the overall effect still proves strangely hypnotic, if one was being generous, and Phil is here, he might even call it mesmerising.

Strangely, at the end, the dozen or so who ovated enthusiastically were all women. Make of that what you will. Perhaps others in the audience were too busy worrying about where they could purchase some post-show prophylactics.

Rating for Behind the Beautiful Forevers

for John

4 Responses to “Review – Behind the Beautiful Forevers / John, National Theatre”

  1. margarita Says:

    I’d hate you to think we weren’t all greedily inhaling your every word and have to assure you that the reason nobody has left a comment is that because you’ve seen this stuff we don’t have to.

    So despite being used on this occasion as a tethered goat please continue to make this world of variable theatre easier for the less brave amongst us. And I consider myself to be close to the top of that list.

  2. Billy Says:

    Yes Margarita for this blog entry coinciding with Kennedy assassination day and approaching Thanksgiving, let us be thankful for the Whingers for providng such delightfully vivacious and witty commentary for so long, so much better written than the salaried hacks ! Even as they stagger in the distracted latter stages of their online career, like Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson in the Chichester Uncle Vanya, some degree of majesty remains –

  3. I can see that BTBF could easily be disjointed, but I do suspect that the Whingers may have seen it before it was pulled together properly. There are so many ‘working parts’ in it that to thoroughly integrate them must have been difficult.
    All I can say is that myself and various friends thoroughly enjoyed it. We thought it intelligently written, amusing, poignant and refreshing theatre. And we are not very easy to please either!
    We didn’t enjoy ‘Hope’ at all…but then again…
    I anticipate with interest the Whingers take on this if they see it. I usually agree with them.

  4. Sandown Says:

    The true name of the great city of Western India is Bombay, as it has been for centuries, and as most of its inhabitants still call it.
    “Mumbai” is a completely bogus name, instigated a few years ago by some corrupt Hindu politician. However, it is typical of the National Theatre to pander to that.
    Also typical of the National Theatre to mark the festive season with two play-offerings devoted to such moral and physical squalour.

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