I really struggled to come up with a suitably erudite introduction to this review of Flintlock Theatre’s Don Q. Not because it’s hard to summarize – quite the opposite. The structure works, the message and plot are clear and the performances are excellent in this suitable-for-all-ages appropriation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I am chalking my difficulties up to this being such an enchanting and moving play that words aren’t quite capturing that “warm and fuzzy but actually quite sad” feeling I had the entire time. Everything I tried to write came across as cold and clinical. It’s a rare occasion that I go to theatre and nearly forget to take notes because what I am seeing on stage grips me by the proverbials that as a woman, I don’t even have. Seeing Don Q evoked the joy and wonderment I had on my first experience of theatre as a small child.
It’s not a simple show, though. Four actors take on numerous levels of characterization. Like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a group of unrelated characters bookend the play. In this case hapless librarians, frustrated by the council’s efforts to close them down, highlight the importance of storytelling by relating the tale of Norman Vaughan to us. Norman, as we soon find out, is probably their most infamous patron. Norman’s nameless nephew thinks Norman, now 81 years old, has gone mad. You see, Norman loves to read and reenact the stories he reads with his younger friend Sam and anyone else he cajoles into joining him. It is immediately and painfully clear that Norman is completely lucid; he just has a joyful passion for stories and acting them out. The younger generation are so busy being adults that they have forgotten the pleasure of playacting and the power of an absorbing tale. So not only are the audience reminded of the importance of reading and allowing ourselves to be absorbed in a good book, we are also more subtly admonished for not taking the time to listen to our elders and treat them like human beings. So what if Norman (or any other elderly person) loves what he does? As long as no one gets hurt, we are told to leave well enough alone.
Norman’s nephew, having had enough of Norman’s mishaps and convinced he has gone mad, puts him in a nursing home to be looked after properly. He strictly forbids Norman from having access to any books. Sam, on one of his visits, smuggles in a copy of Don Quixote into the nursing home. A comedy chase results in their escape and an adventure imitating a selection of escapades from the original novel. Sam is a begrudging Sancho Panza, a pair of scooters augmented with push brooms and spoons are their trusty steeds and other people they encounter on the way play other characters (some more willingly than others). Their madcap journey is full of whimsy, spontaneity and emotional turmoil but with a potentially tearful ending for the more sentimental of audience members.
Director Robin Colyer skillfully employs physical theatre sequences to add variation and an atmosphere of a touring troupe of players. This is clearly a well-rehearsed, established production; not a breath was out of time. Objects and costume pieces are used liberally and often comically, in a style reminding me of the West End’s 39 Steps. The set and costumes are simple and rustic, but versatile and thought through. Nothing is excessive, nor sparse; the production design is just right.
The performances unite a fantastic script with heaps of audience interaction, and the great design to create a beautifully polished little show. Some call and response would have made more people feel included, as well as giving costume and lines to those in all parts of the auditorium rather than only those sat in the front row. Actors Jeremy Barlow, Francesca Binefa, Kate Colebrook and Samuel Davies are versatile multi-rollers with outstanding chemistry as an ensemble. Whilst I considered that having an older man play the role of Norman would have brought more to the story, the role is incredibly physically demanding and would be difficult to play at a more advanced age.
Don Q is only at Greenwich Theatre for a brief time, but then continues its national tour. This Oxford-based company is worth seeing no matter what your age, where you are or what you do. They use physical theatre, Brecht, storytelling and meta theatre but in an unobtrusive, charming way to create this lovely, warm, gem of a play.
Star Rating: ☆☆☆☆ 1/2
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