Rotterdam – The STUDIO, Birmingham REP

Writer: Jon Brittain

Director: Donnacadh O’Briain

Reviewer: James Garrington

New Year in Rotterdam, and Alice has decided that it’s finally time to tell her parents that she’s gay. She drafts and redrafts – not an easy email to write, she’s been in this relationship for seven years without telling her parents back home, who she feels sure will disapprove. But this isn’t home – this is Rotterdam and things are, well, different here.

Just as Alice thinks she has finally understood who she is and feels able to talk about it to her parents, a bombshell descends. Her girlfriend Fiona announces that actually she has always identified as a man, and now wants to live not as Fiona but as Adrian. Where does this leave Alice? Has she spent all this time in a relationship with a man after all, and does that mean that she’s actually straight? At the same time Adrian is going through his own struggles for acceptance, desperate to be recognised as a man and frustrated when he’s spoken to as a woman.

The only person Alice seems able to turn to is Josh, who initially seems to be just another work colleague. Against this background appears Alice’s work colleague Lelani, a happy-go-lucky party girl, and what has begun as an acquaintance becomes an electric friendship when she tells Alice that she is gay too, leaving Alice once again wondering who she really is.

One of the joys of the play is the script – Jon Brittain has written dialogue that doesn’t sound like stage dialogue but like natural speech. There’s no explanation, no contrived disclosing of any backstory. Characters enter the room and speak as though they are continuing an ongoing conversation, they sometimes interrupt or talk over each other, and as an audience we have to interpret the context as we catch up with what has happened before. So we slowly find out that Josh and Alice have a history, and more about Josh’s relationship with Fiona/Adrian. It makes the piece feel real and makes us feel part of it.

The characters are nicely written too. There’s no good guys or bad guys, just a group of people trying their best to come to terms with their feelings and emotions against the background of a changing situation. This is potentially a tricky subject to deal with on stage, with some huge minefields to negotiate on the way, but Brittain has produced something that deals with it with a great deal of tenderness and humour – and that is reflected in the approach the cast has taken to their characters too. Rebecca Batnavala gives us an Alice who is shy and confused, and Lucy Jane Parkinson’s Fiona/Adrian shows a nice sudden insecurity beneath a confident exterior – the two contrasting well with Stella Taylor’s supremely outgoing and uninhibited Lelani, while Paul Heath’s Josh is a nice guy trying his best to make everyone happy.

Rotterdam is staged on a single box set functioning as a number of different locations. It’s quite effective on the whole but the painstakingly slow rearrangement of tables and chairs does make for scene changes that feel longer than they should be – a small criticism of what is otherwise an excellent production.

This is a play about compassion, empathy and love, one that will make you consider what degree of change makes someone a different person, and whether these differences really make people that different. It feels very relevant in a time when our traditional tolerance and acceptance of difference seems so much under threat.

Runs Until 22 May 2019 and on tour  | Image: Helen Maybanks

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score

Tender and humorous

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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