Writer: Jon Brittain
Director: Donnacadh O’Briain
Designer: Ellan Parry
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Rotterdam, winner of the 2017 Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre, is a strange mix of sitcom, genuinely moving scenes and serious consideration of issues of gender. It’s a tribute to both Jon Brittain and Donnacadh O’Briain that, for the most part, all these fit together effectively.
The set-up is rather artificial, but Brittain cleverly gives it to us morsel by morsel. The situation that finally emerges is that Alice, to all appearances a conventional young English woman, takes a job in Rotterdam to escape her relationship with boyfriend Josh – nothing personal against a man she is very fond of, but she has tired of the pretence of heterosexuality. Josh, however, follows her at which point Alice falls for his sister Fiona. So there they all are, seven years later, living in Rotterdam, a city Alice dislikes where they speak a language she won’t learn, Alice and Fiona together, Josh everyone’s friend.
Any sense of cosy domesticity disappears on New Year’s Eve – most of the play takes place against a background of celebration, with much of Act 2 occurring on the King’s Birthday holiday. Alice – who is gay in Rotterdam, straight at home – is wrestling with the email she has long planned to send to the parents telling them the truth. Then Fiona has a bombshell of her own. She has always felt herself to be male and now she plans to transition to living as a man with the name Adrian. His/her attempt at telling parents, incidentally, is much better and braver than Alice’s.
Brittain perceptively examines all the various problems arising from this gender realignment. The physical effects get serious, but brief, attention. Alice’s shocked, “What shall I tell my parents now?” is a laugh-line – after all, she seems incapable of telling her parents anything. Adrian’s desperate need, as hormone therapy gets underway, to be recognized as male produces some powerful scenes – and a few laughs. But what of Alice who “likes girls”? Can she love the new Adrian, so like the old Fiona, yet so different?
The result is challenging and moving. However, the desire to entertain keeps breaking in, mostly at the right time, but sometimes disturbing the balance. It obviously makes sense dramatically for Alice to have a Lesbian work-mate who offers an alternative to Adrian, but the character of Lelani is problematic. Ellie Morris’ performance is gloriously over-the-top, but the character, glittering and shouting, stamping and running, hurling her arms in the air, hedonistic to the last millimeter, is hard to believe in – she even gets a typical sit-com final exit line. In fairness to writer, director and actor, it’s worth saying that the performance is wildly entertaining.
Elijah W Harris is a sympathetic Josh who hints (only lightly) at his own heartbreak. Bethan Cullinane (Alice) and Lucy Jane Parkinson (Fiona/Adrian) both succeed admirably in playing broad comedy scenes and conveying subtle or agonizing shifts in their worlds. Cullinane moves convincingly from nervously conventional to sybaritic wild and (very quickly) back again; Parkinson, always believable and expressive, is superb at the tiny differences that separate Fiona from Adrian.
There’s a certain amount of sound and fury in the production, but Ellan Parry’s design certainly signifies something. The bright colourful apartment set, with evocative images on the walls and hidden doors absorbed into the décor, fits the in-your-face production style perfectly.
Reviewed on 11th April
Touring nationwide | Image: Helen Maybanks