John (NT Lyttelton)

Physical Theatre company DV8 return to the South Bank venue

Hannes Langolf
© Laurent Phillipe

Lloyd Newson‘s DV8 Physical Theatre pay their fourth visit to the National Theatre – as part of the Travelex £15 season – with a grim, uncompromising story of a Geordie called John who escapes one sort of domestic hell on Tyneside for what looks to me like another but is in fact a life of promiscuous hedonism in a gay sauna.

There’s nothing fantastical or "made-up" about this story, either, which makes it all the more depressing. Newson explains in the programme how he set out, with a tape-recorder, to prepare a show about euthanasia and dying with dignity. This morphed into a non-specific project on sex, love and desire; until John walked into the DV8 office.

Then it became all about him. To say John drew one of life’s short straws is to put it mildly. His abusive father raped the baby-sitter and starved his overweight sister, nailing down her bedroom door, while his alcoholic mum went shop-lifting and into prison. Floating on a sea of drugs and deprivation, he drifts through heterosexual relationships – girls’ dresses descend on their hangers like perverse trophies— crime, street fights, obesity into fitness and gay liberation.

It’s a pilgrim’s anti-progress, staged by Newson as a muscly, disjointed, extremely powerful series of ensemble tableaux with hairy-faced John exchanging one nightmare of domestic proximity for an equally intense dream-world of casual confrontation. This contrast is quaintly and ironically underlined in Anna Fleischle‘s revolving set of a balsa wood jungle, with cramped corridors and doorways, repressive physicality exchanged for a consensual one of free love.

But is it love? Against an eclectically constant soundtrack (Led Zeppelin, Loscil, Plastikman, Smolik, Randy Newman and Tank Edwards are among those name-checked in the programme), and a mumbled, under-articulated verbal narrative, John comes to the conclusion that he has so much love to give he must keep on looking. But true love, surely in this context, is a chimera, a delusion beyond self-indulgence.

The company of nine (one woman) perform with a dead-eyed, unflinching commitment, creating plastic scenes of locker room louche-ness – the quick-changing room towel sequence is like a speeded up silent movie – a blow-job ballet and a conveyor-belt-like foot-shuffling conga between the various depictions of buttock-bearing carnal congress and entanglement.

The seventy-five minutes certainly pass in a flash (several flashes, in fact), and it’s as good for DV8 to be taken out of its comfort zone as it is for the NT audience to be shaken out of theirs. And shaken I was, if not exactly stirred. Did I enjoy it? Not as much as I’d hoped, but more than I expected. There’s a National Theatre Live broadcast on 9 December and the UK tour resumes in the New Year.