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We've come to the Theatre by Mistake! - Withnail and I at the Birmingham Rep

Withnail and I, Birmingham Rep, from Friday 3 May – Saturday 25 May 2024

Review by David Court

Withnail and I - The Play

An autobiographical tale based on writer Bruce Robinson’s experiences as a young struggling actor towards the end of the sixties, the movie of Withnail and I was released by George Harrison’s HandMade Films in 1987. It was the film that made Paul McGann and Richard E. Grant famous and has garnered somewhat of a cult following since its release.

 

Now it’s hitting the stage in a new adaptation (penned by Bruce Robinson himself) at the Birmingham Rep, running throughout May, and I was lucky enough to attend a preview to a packed house on a sunny Thursday afternoon (with an audience including comedian Al Murray, spotted in the foyer).


The Stage - photo by Tara Court

Marwood (the “I” of the title) is played by the wonderfully monikered Adonis Siddique, with Withnail portrayed by Robert Sheehan (of Misfits and Umbrella Academy TV fame). The play opens with the two jobless luvvies in the squalor of their London flat, bemoaning the filth of the place and their lack of booze. Seeking to rejuvenate themselves – and get out of a rut – the two hapless City Dwellers make their way to the countryside, an ultimately doomed endeavour.

 

There’s a rule of theatre that an actor’s performance must be ‘bigger’ – actors having to adjust to the ‘frame size’ of where they’re performing. That said, Richard E. Grant’s performance in the movie version of Withnail and I is so memorably spirited and over-the-top it’s hard to see how it could be made bigger – but Sheehan pulls it off with aplomb. Withnail is a sleazy, exuberant, self-obsessed lush – and the actor makes the role his very own. Marwood, by comparison, is less animated – but infinitely more sympathetic – but Siddique excels.


The Show Programme - Photograph by Tara Court

With a soundtrack of memorable sixties classics played by a live band (featuring comedian Sooz Kempner on vocals), it wonderfully conveys the sense of the era; of an epoch coming to an end – a Summer of Love and an age of hedonism about to be replaced by one of skyrocketing inflation and unemployment.

 

Special mention must go to the stagecraft that went into this production at the Rep – it’s a tale which shifts between many locations, and the transition between scenes is nothing short of magnificent. There’s not a stage trick that isn’t used, be it hidden doors, sliding panels, and complex projections. Many of the scenes shift weirdly into focus, as though watching it through the same drunken hazy fog in which the two leads perpetually find themselves. It's not a play for the fainthearted – the language is crude and the characters vulgar – but it’s an excellent adaptation of an already brilliant movie. Special mention must also go to Malcolm Sinclair as the predatory Uncle Monty (with distinct Noël Coward vibes) and Adam Young as drug dealer Danny – who channels Ralph Brown who played the role in the film.

 

It’s laugh out loud funny, with a tragic conclusion – and fans of the film (and theatre in general) will not be disappointed. It’s as eminently quotable as its source and is genuinely hilarious.


At the stage door with Robert Sheehan (Withnail) and Tara- Photograph by Tara Court

Tickets are available here.

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