wed 19/06/2024

Withnail and I, Birmingham Rep review - Bruce Robinson’s 1987 film makes for a theatrical hit | reviews, news & interviews

Withnail and I, Birmingham Rep review - Bruce Robinson’s 1987 film makes for a theatrical hit

Withnail and I, Birmingham Rep review - Bruce Robinson’s 1987 film makes for a theatrical hit

Withnail and Marwood fix up the Jag and head for Birmingham

Marwood (Adonis Siddique) and Withnail (Robert Sheehan) hit the NorthManuel Harlan

Let’s put our cards firmly on the table here. I am a big fan of Bruce Robinson’s cinematic masterpiece about two out-of-work actors who live in Camden Town in 1969 and escape to the countryside for some rejuvenation, and must have seen it multiple times since it was released onto the big screen 37 years or so ago.

Clearly, I’m not the only one, for Withnail and I has since achieved serious cult status – to the extent that it’s something of a surprise that it’s never been the focus of a dodgy Hollywood make-over or even been turned into a rock opera by the likes of Ben Elton.

Therefore, it was with some trepidation that I approached the initial run of a live theatre version of this classic comedy at Birmingham’s Rep. However, the fact that it had been adapted for the stage by Robinson himself and was to be directed by the great Sean Foley did offer significant hope. That said, there were still two major aspects about the production that gave a degree of concern: who was going to be cast as the self-absorbed and over-confident, yet cowardly Withnail and how was the predatory Uncle Monty and his unwanted sexual fixation on Adonis Siddique’s Marwood going to be portrayed? After all, mainstream attitudes towards the LGBT+ community have shifted considerably since the film first appeared in the late 1980s, when the Thatcher Government was still doing its damnedest to demonise gay men and lesbians with their Section 28 legislation.

I need not have worried. As Robert Sheehan’s portrayal of Withnail was an absolute scream – and certainly no shallow imitation of Richard E Grant’s performance that launched his film career and created an enduring source of comedy banter, if not a minor character-focused cult. Malcolm Sinclair’s Uncle Monty was similarly a fresh creation and considerably less flamboyant than Richard Griffith’s cinematic portrayal of the part. If anything, Sheehan was significantly more camp than Sinclair in this version.

Of course, the eminently quotable lines from the film’s script were all in order, with many fan boys and girls in the audience mouthing them as they were spoken by the actors. The infamous “We want the finest wines available to humanity. We want them here and we want them now!” even got its own cheer from a good proportion of those in the house.

While the original film has quite a small cast and all the characters, including Danny the Dealer and the imposing Presuming Ed, were represented without having to amalgamate any roles, reproducing various scenes – such as strolling or staggering over the bleak Northern countryside to and from the Crow pub – just wasn’t possible on the Rep’s stage. However, Alice Power’s excellent set – which often consisted of translucent screens and projections – more than made up for the limitations posed by an indoor theatre. Similarly, punctuating the show with a live band covering “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, “Sunshine of your Love” and other tunes of the time, resplendent in hippy garb and fronted by the energetic Sooz Kempner, was a genius move.

All-in-all, this production of Withnail and I was a triumph and the standing ovation that the cast received was certainly well deserved. Indeed, the show proved to be far from the mistake that it could have been but a real celebration of British theatre in front of a packed audience.

This production of Withnail and I was a triumph and the standing ovation that the cast received was certainly well deserved

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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