Writer: Jon Brittain
Director: Donnacadh O’Briain
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
For most of us, where we live is a positive choice; for the characters in Rotterdam, however, their choice to live there has been one of a perceived necessity. They’re living there because there’s nowhere else they can see to go. As one character says, Rotterdam is a port, everything is flowing through on its way somewhere else; our characters have become trapped. However, the catalyst that will cause them to rethink their choices is about to occur.
Alice is living in Rotterdam because it isn’t home; in Rotterdam, she’s free to live with her girlfriend, Fiona, away from any possible disapproval from her parents. Her inability to come out to her parents has become a long-running joke between Alice and Fiona and the play opens as Alice is trying to compose an email to explain her situation to her parents – including the deep love she feels for Fiona, her partner of seven years.
As Alice and Fiona bicker about coming out to parents and the world, Fiona drops her own bombshell that will change their relationship and their lives forever. Fiona no longer identifies as a lesbian; she believes she is a man, a straight man, trapped in the wrong body since birth. And once that admission bursts from her, Fiona, now Adrian, wants to be accepted as a man immediately.
But what does this mean for Alice? Having found a modicum of happiness and security in her relationship with Fiona, how will she cope as Adrian takes over: a binder helps reduce his curves while hormone treatment lowers his voice and builds a more muscular frame. He is keen to be taken seriously as a man while all Alice can see is the women she loved gradually being replaced by a stranger, and a man to boot. As she wails, she likes girls and Adrian – well he’s not a girl. It’s perhaps no surprise that Alice takes an interest in Lelani, a free-spirit from work who is herself in Rotterdam to escape a provincial life.
Rotterdam is sensitively written by Jon Brittain. It’s by no means a sentimental piece, nor is it a heavy-going LGBTQ polemic. It’s a play about real people facing real problems that need to be worked out. Brittain’s fine ear for dialogue ensures that every twist is logical, every reaction believable. His characters are well-rounded and we root for all of them at one point or another. There’s also much natural humour providing outright belly-laughs alongside touching moments of poignancy. We see inside the heads of Alice and Fiona, later Adrian, and can’t help but empathise with their situations; a scene in which the confident Adrian phones his parents to tell them his latest revelation, where we see the veneer stripped away and a vulnerable child seeking (and receiving) reassurance that he is both loved and worthy of that love, is especially moving. While Brittain’s characters are drawn from the LGBTQ community, the difficulty of being comfortable in one’s own skin and with the image one projects are surely universal.
At the centre are Alice (Bethan Cullinane) and Fiona/Adrian (Lucy Jane Parkinson). Cullinane’s Alice is neurotic and insecure as her world crumbles and she tries to make sense of it in the only way she knows: trying to impose order. Her anguish and grief at the loss of the partner she adored are clear. Parkinson is the gruff northerner Fiona/Adrian. She brings an edge to Adrian and his journey. Yet when Alice finally makes her feelings clear, Parkinson clearly shows the wretchedness Adrian feels. Two powerful and affecting central performances indeed.
Skipping in and out of Alice’s life is the spontaneous Lelani (Ellie Morris). Morris is never quite over the top as Lelani – despite her difficulties in understanding Alice’s feelings and responses. There’s plenty of comedy from Morris’ Lelani, but also pathos as her feelings towards Alice become clearer.
There’s a sure directorial hand at work here from Donnacadh O’Briain. He ensures that performances never descend into caricature. Ellan Parry’s simple minimal design allows the same space to seamlessly move between the flat shared by Alice and Fiona/Adrian, Alice’s workplace, clubs in Amsterdam and others. Scene transitions are smooth.
If there is a criticism of this production it’s that the Grand is perhaps too, well, grand for it. Rotterdam is an intimate piece that calls for an intimate setting; its relatively small set seems dwarfed by the Grand’s large stage.
This minor criticism aside, Rotterdam is undoubtedly a triumph and it’s clear why it won Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre at the 2017 Olivier Awards. Its run at the Grand is relatively short, but it is well worth seeking out while on tour: it will leave you pondering the nature of self and sexuality.
Runs Until 24 April 2019 and on tour | Image: Helen Maybanks