Writer: JonathanCoe, adapted by Richard Cameron
Director: Gwenda Hughes
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Published in 2001, Jonathan Coe’s satirical novel, The Rotters’ Club, looks at life in the turbulent 1970s through the eyes of Ben Trotter and his friends, boys who attend the prestigious King William’s grammar school. All of its pupils have earned their places on merit; it provides a microcosm of society at the time with the sons of factory management rubbing shoulders with sons of trades-union shop stewards, middle-class boys and working class, black and white. There is the feeling that anything is possible but as well as optimism there is ugliness, for example, in the casual racism towards a black boy who excels both academically and sportingly.
We follow Ben Trotter as he grows from immature and introverted boy to a young man on the threshold of a new life away from his home town of Birmingham. Occasionally, the cast read from their characters’, or their characters’ siblings’, diaries that have the ring of truth as teenagers struggling to come to terms with their growing understanding of themselves as sexual and political beings set down their innermost thoughts. Occasionally a character will sonorously announce the date or we will hear about events and movements – for example, the musical revolution that punk brought, ousting progressive rock from the hearts of many – and these help the audience orient itself in that decade. All this is going on against the background of industrial unrest, the three-day week, power cuts, the rise of such extreme right groups as the National Front and IRA terrorism that came close to home with the Birmingham Pub Bombings.
The cast is made up of youngsters from the Young REP, Birmingham REP’s youth theatre and they perform with assurance. The central character is Ben Trotter, played by Charlie Mills. Introverted and awkward at first, infatuated with Cicely, the most beautiful girl from the parallel girls’ school. We feel his pain and see his compassion for his sister Lois (Alice McGowan). For much of the story, Lois is incarcerated in an institution as she comes to terms with a major trauma in her young life when she loses the love of her life, Malcolm (Daniel Carter). McGowan brings a youthful joy as their relationship grows and deepens; followed by near-catatonia as he is snatched away. Although Ben desires Cicely, he is the subject of Claire’s unrequited love. Anna Bradley as Claire steals the show whenever she is on stage: her acting is understated but effective, her face and whole body the image of the feelings inside. She also matures the most believably.
If Bradley gives the performance of the night for the female characters, then Haris Myers’ performance as class clown Sean Harding is the stand-out male performance. His over-the-top camp performance with some very near the knuckle jokes goes alongside a fragility from a difficult home life that is only hinted at.
Richard Cameron’s adaptation can only skim the complexity of a novel, so some characters and actions remain only sketched in and some storylines seem to arise or end abruptly. Most adult characters are not explicitly included, their actions inferred from the youngsters’ attitudes and dialogue. This works effectivelythough sometimes viewpoints and motivations are maybe missed. For example, we can only imagine the impact of a workplace affair between one of the characters’ fathers and Claire’s older sister, Miriam (Jasmin Melissa Hylton) and her motivation for her actions as it collapses.
Michael Hold has designed an open and multi-layered space on stage that moves effortlessly between locations in the story, using projections to good effect. Gwenda Hughes’ direction gives the whole an episodic, almost cinematic feel, which takes a little time to get to grips with. Scene changes are effected by the cast moving in tightly choreographed routines as chairs, tables and other props are placed with military precision to tense music. These serve to punctuate the action while avoiding interrupting it.
This is a competent piece showcasing the emerging talents of the REP’s youth theatre and of which the young actors can be justifiably proud. It isn’t without flaws – the timeline can be confusing and some storylines lack resolution – but nevertheless this is an entertaining night out, deserving of an audience.
Runs until 9 April 2016 | Image: Robert Day