Rotterdam – Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham

Writer: Jon Brittain

Director: Andrew Whittle

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Possibly the most widely misunderstood segment of the LBGTQI community is the trans-sexual community; those whose bodies don’t match their own understanding of their gender can find their motives questioned and to be open to misunderstanding, ridicule or even abuse. Jon Brittain’s Rotterdam examines the impact of an individual being transgender and its effect on those close to them. That could suggest a heavygoing, worthy piece of theatre; it is not – Rotterdam is full of humour as well as challenge. And Brittain’s well-drawn characters ensure that while Rotterdam is a story of such journeys – indeed, one character comments that Rotterdam is a port and that everything, including a portion of its population, is on the move through it –  it is more about the nature of self and, indeed, love.

Fiona and Alice are a couple and have been living as such in Rotterdam for some seven years. Alice first came for a job when she was in a relationship with Josh, Fiona’s older brother, who remains Alice’s best friend. While brash and loud tomboy Fiona has always been comfortable with her sexuality and came out to her supportive parents and the world as a teen, Alice is less comfortable. She is still not out to her parents, or anyone back home. Only in Rotterdam can she be herself – and then only really with those closest to her. The play opens as the old year is coming to an end and Alice is struggling to compose an email to her parents explaining her sexuality; her inner conflict is clear. While she is quite sure of herself and her sexuality, she fears rejection from her parents who, she feels, inhabit another world entirely. As Fiona reads Alice’s words describing her love for Fiona to her, Alice’s, parents she is both moved and troubled. Because Fiona has a secret that she has never shared with anyone before: she thinks she’s a man.

Once Pandora’s box had been opened there is no closing it. Now the truth is out – and quickly shared with Josh and her parents – and despite not being sure exactly what form her transition might take, Fiona is keen to start living as a man, as Adrian. This leads to a poignant and moving scene that closes the first half, and the chapter of Adrian’s life pre-transition, as Fiona swaps her bra for a binder to make her silhouette fit more closely his image of himself.

Where does this leave Alice? Is it the person that Adrian was that she loved, or did his (former) gender play a part? Already awkward with the concept of being out as a lesbian, how will she respond to this change of circumstances? A young colleague at work, Lelani, has made it clear that she is attracted to Alice and the idea intrigues her as she is taken out of herself, even, after seven years, learning Dutch and taking part in some traditional Dutch customs, for example, wearing orange to celebrate Konigsdag, or King’s Day, in April.

While it is Lewis Formby as Fiona and, later Adrian, around whom the story centres, it is Hannah Lawrence’s portrayal of Alice that is at the centre – and Lawrence more than steps up to the plate with a first-rate performance. Both actors offer clear visions of their characters’ inner turmoil, with mobile faces and at times faltering and always believable dialogue – in the programme notes, director Andrew Whittle remarks that when he read the play he found that Brittain’s naturalistic dialogue ‘leaps off the page’. One rides an emotional roller-coaster as Adrian and Alice try to find a way forward. Ben Andrew gives a solid performance as Josh who, despite his history with both protagonists, is able to support Alice and Adrian. Despite appearing to be a freewheeling hedonist, Fleur de Wit’s Lelani provides the voice of those who struggle to understand the nature of transition. Her lack of understanding that Adrian is male, despite his body, leads her to make all of the errors people make when confronted with a transsexual – using the wrong pronouns, commenting on how convincing appearance is, suggesting therapy might be called for, for example. De Wit is totally believable in this rôle. Indeed, there’s no weak link in this production.

The simple set allows action to take place in Alice’s flat, workplace and in various Rotterdam locations with a minimum of fuss in transitions supported by a subtle soundscape from Wild Edric Media.

Here to There Theatre, the producer of Rotterdam, has provided us with much food for thought. It has shared a very moving and gripping human story with us to which we, as the audience, can relate, however we identify ourselves, which deserves to reach a wider audience.

Runs until 31 March 2018 | Image: Wild Edric Media

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score

Thought provoking and challenging

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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