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Withnail and I – Birmingham REP

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Writer: Bruce Robinson

Director: Sean Foley

Why are there two gleaming, classic Jags purring outside the Rep inducing a fan-crazed selfie kerfuffle, sporting enough 60s retro cool to have Morse crying over his cryptic crossword and a spontaneous reincarnation of Prince readying to record a triple album titled CROME? Ah ah! The Camden to Perth road trip in the MOT-phobic nightmare battered Jag sequence. It all begins to make nonsense. A dash of drunken panache down in one.

‘Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk? Or maybe – ‘We’re gonna need bigger boat.’ Certainly, ‘Make him an offer he can’t refuse.’ But deep, so deeply embedded in the cult-tabernacle of alt.film quote magnificence surely must resonate the immortal plight of the rain-drenched Withnail’s – ‘We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!’ Or perhaps his piscine resistance confrontation in the pi**ed-up gaffer’s pub, when threatened by the anonymous poacher – ‘Don’t you threaten me with a dead fish!’ But without doubt there’s the resonating coda of, ’I feel like a pig shat in my head’ ranks amongst the pantheon of hangover from Hell retrospections.

To read Bruce Robinson’s original Withnail and I screenplay is analogous to imbibing with said protagonist’s good morning Great Britain synaptic shock medication of a lighter fuel and meths pick-me-up.

It’s akin to entering a byzantine brain-scape scraping imaginarium of impossible parallel surrealities as though strapped in a leading clown-car catastrophe rollercoaster ride through a Max Escher etching. Little wonder that Executive Producer of Hand Made Films, George Harrison, endorsed Robinson directing the film. No-one else could understand what the hell was going on.

To bring any relevant, subjective critique to this production, given tonight’s sell-out, utterly gung-ho punter-fest, might seem passé. It has to be, is going to be, and indeed is, exceptionally good. They’re buzzing like bees mainlining crack-nectar. They’re up for it from the start and encore raving at the end of show curtain calls. They know the lines almost off pat and revel like pigs in clover. No room for doubters tonight.

The titular nomenclature Withnail and I derives from the 1987 sub-culture, slow-burner film hit featuring the cadaverous Richard E Grant and the alabaster pure skinned, Paul McGann, worryingly, about to be corrupted by the predatory paederast Uncle Monty – a disgustingly convincing Richard Griffiths. Forsooth – just wait for tonight’s finest sherry stealth-degenerate Malcolm Sinclair’s take on Monty. The devotees will have been suitably convinced by his sausage and carrot innuendo.

The bar’s, err hum, been set very high indeed for this production to aspire to. What further nuance can they tease from this classic tale of renegades relegated from reality ‘resting between parts’. An existence of fags, drink and societal sponging?

Psychosis for liquid breakfast and light another fag – The Devil’s own dudes are on a mission to drink Camden dry one second after 12 noon. Oblivion and /or bust. Or maybe just a whiff of their agent throwing them a crumb of casting part to at least pay the bills.

This stage adaptation can’t go wrong. Literally – it can’t afford to go wrong, a sixteen-night run is a whacking investment. It’s the best of a near-impossible challenge and director, Sean Foley, pulls it off in a blitz of dedicated love and craft.

Robert Sheehan’s Withnail is duty-bound to imbibe of the poison chalice facing the near impossibility of recreating Grant’s screen persona. He’s more a dandy and fay here, less the cadaverous Grant, more a degenerate sartorial wardrobe swagger of Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes albeit after copious sherries.

Adonis Siddique as ‘And I’, named as Marwood in Robinson’s screenplay provides a shared voice to audience intimacy through his daily journal, ever anxious to get that desperate confirmation of a casting part. He provides a convincing alter-ego sanity to Sheehan’s manic, alcoholic frenzied eccentricities. Malcolm Sinclair as Uncle Monty exploits his pedigree curriculum vitae credentials and revels in the part – rampant gay, stalking with a stonker, his lecherous intentions towards Marwood telegraphed from the off. An altogether disgusting riff on the aforementioned carrot and stick approach.

The inventor of the 12 skin ‘Camberwell Carrot’ dealer and lamenter of the dying Sixties’ vibe, Danny, is a deliciously indulged study of drug-addled laid-back louche to the max from Adam Young. He aptly nuances the darker side of Danny’s Hippie with a not-so-subtle menace.

Alice Power’s set and costume design, supported by Akhila Krishnan’s video design, are a technical and visual delight on their own. Seamless, sweeping transitions from the rat-rotten Camden slum to spit and sawdust pubs or Uncle Monty’s Brontéesque Crow Crag cottage. The jag-wreak road trip to Perth sequence is a blunderbuss bagatelle few will forget from tonight’s production. A master study in mise en scène delight topped off by a rat-arsed ranting Withnail hurling abuse to all and sundry through a rain-lashed long night of his tortured soul.

Revel in this delirium of retro degeneracy – at the recommended safe distance. Drink in moderation. Robinson originally had Withnail’s ‘Oh what a piece of work is man.’ soliloquy in London Zoo leaving the wolves suitably unimpressed. They were right to be. There were altogether more dangerous ones readying to huff and puff and blow down his drunken house of jokers’ cards. Miss this and hate yourselves – forever.

Runs until 25 May 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

An indulgence in retro degeneracy

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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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