Johnno

David Malouf, adapted for the stage by Stephen Edward
Brisbane Festival 2006, Derby Playhouse and La Boite Theatre
Derby Playhouse
(2007)

Possibly the last thing you would expect from a theatre that's had recurring financial problems is a play that few people have heard of. But Derby Playhouse have taken the bold decision to put on the European premiere of an adaptation of a seminal Australian novel. The result is absolutely stunning.

There's been so much hype about Stephen Edward's stage version of Johnno that some theatregoers must think either that it can't be true or that it's little recommendation coming from Australians who aren't exactly world leaders in exporting culture.

For instance, Time Off magazine stated that this production "achieved the unlikely if not the seemingly impossible" in bringing Malouf's words to the stage. Praise indeed for a work which has a cherished place in the hearts of many people down under.

Yet on the strength of the performance in Derby, Johnno is superb. Any superlative you can use to describe it is probably justified.

Malouf wrote Johnno 32 years ago.

It's said that if a Queenslander loses his passport anywhere in the world, he can produce a copy of Johnno as proof of his birthplace.

Several Australians had tried and failed to bring Johnno to the stage, possibly because of their reverence for and closeness to the work. But Derby Playhouse's joint artistic director Stephen Edwards approached it from a different angle. His adaptation is little short of a masterpiece.

Johnno traces the relationship between two friends, Johnno and Dante, over three decades from their schooldays to Johnno's death from drowning in a small pool of water in his home city.

Most of the action takes place on a circular stage covered with water, allowing all sorts of symbolic interpretations. Dante is always on the edge, walking on a slightly raised wall or being carried by the other actors to a tall platform with steps at either side. Until the end Dante is always striving not to get wet and never immersing himself in what he regards as Johnno's irresponsible behaviour.

Paul Denny, who played the title role in Brisbane, again takes the lead. His is an astonishing performance as the fun-loving, irrepressible, excitement-seeking Johnno who runs away from his birthplace which he regards as "the arsehole of the universe" although he can never run away from himself.

Sean Mee is the perfect opposite as Dante who never approves of Johnno's antics yet is irresistibly drawn towards him and tries with little success to protect Johnno from himself.

The other eight members of the cast play the various people that the two men meet during their lives, from family members and school friends to prostitutes and other nefarious characters. They also work energetically and tirelessly to keep Dante dry by whatever means possible.

Edwards directs with panache and sensitivity, using improvisation and only a few props to present a visual as well as an aural treat. And Elena Kats-Chernin's evocative, piano-heavy score is sensitively portrayed by a small band of musicians led by Kelvin Towse.

Johnno is a thought-provoking, intense, moving piece. It may not appeal to some of the theatregoers who saw the last production at the Playhouse, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, because it has more depth and pathos. I'm not sure if the couple on the front row who moved after getting splashed during a particularly lively scene found it entirely to their liking.

But Johnno deserves a much wider audience than Brisbane and Derby, two cities which ought to count themselves lucky that they're the first to experience it.

The Playhouse have jumped in at the deep end with Johnno; they've certainly made a splash.

"Johnno" runs until March 31st

Steve Orme