Withnail and I

Bruce Robinson
Birmingham Rep, Handmade Films and George Waud
Birmingham Rep

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Marwood (Adonis Siddique) and Withnail (Robert Sheehan) Credit: Manuel Harlan
Uncle Monty (Malcolm Sinclair) Credit: Manuel Harlan

Withnail and I is the latest film-to-stage adaptation to come to The Birmingham Rep. Last month we had Minority Report and Sean Foley, the director of Withnail and I, and current Artistic Director of The Rep, will direct Dr. Strangelove in the West End in the autumn, so he presumably sees film fans as a potential theatre audience.

Written and directed by Bruce Robinson, the original, semi-autobiographical 1987 film about two impoverished, out of work actors flopped at the box office and then turned into a cult hit. Low in plot but high in quotable one-liners, the film, set in 1969, had an authentic, counterculture feel to it. It had a cool soundtrack, featuring Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles, a relaxed attitude to drugs and alcohol and it was made with Beatles money by George Harrison’s Handmade Films. It looked like the kind of alternative, low budget movie its heroes might end up making.

The film, and play, is a series of comic set pieces strung together on a loose, fish-out-of-water plot. The unnamed ‘and I’ narrator (subsequently called Marwood in the published screenplay) and Withnail decide to get out of London, and Withnail’s wealthy uncle, Monty, offers them the use of his cottage in Penrith. They arrive in pouring rain and with no food. Uncle Monty arrives to save the day and to try, and fail, to seduce Marwood. Marwood gets an audition, and a job, they go back to London and the friends part.

Bruce Robinson has expertly rewritten his screenplay into a stage show. He has kept Marwood’s first-person narrative and all the quotable one-liners with the bare minimum of revision, although there are a lot more quotations from Hamlet than in the film. It is beautifully staged with a live, four-piece band playing 'sixties covers and a mixture of flown flats, back projection and furniture that slides on and off stage on rails. Seeing how the set designer, Alice Power, and video designer, Akhila Krishnan, have recreated the scenes from the film is all part of the fun.

There is a cast of nine, with a lot of doubling, but this is very much a three-hander between Marwood, Withnail and Uncle Monty. Adonis Siddique’s Marwood and Robert Sheehan’s Withnail are a classic comedy, anxious straight man and anarchic clown, double act. They work well together, and the filthy flat and physical comedy have echoes of Ade Edmondson and Rik Mayall in The Young Ones and Bottom.

Malcolm Sinclair looks nothing like Richard Griffiths, the original Uncle Monty, but it seems to have freed him from impersonation, and his performance is superb. He steals every scene he is in and he delivers the line, “Sign on? At a Labour Exchange?” with the haughty disdain of Edith Evans’s “A handbag?” in The Importance Of Being Earnest.

Adam Young has a couple of nice scenes as Danny, the drug dealer, but all Israel J Fredericks gets to do as Presuming Ed is walk across the stage with his shirt off, blow smoke rings (which he does very well) and do a Hare Krishna chant. According to the programme, this is his first professional job after leaving drama school, so I hope he is enjoying the experience, but he is underused.

So too is Sooz Kempner, the only woman in the cast. She sings offstage with the band, but apart from that she gets about five lines in the tea shop scene (“We want the finest wines available to humanity. And we want them here, and we want them now!”—that scene) and one line as a policewoman when she says, “get in the back of the van”. I wouldn’t normally count how many lines an actor has, but this is very much a boys’ show, so it was hard not to notice.

For all its cult appeal, the original film had a mean streak. It opens with a transphobic newspaper headline, "Love made up my mind: I had to become a woman", which is used to illustrate how terrible life in London is. Monty is casually anti-Semitic, Withnail is a misogynist who randomly shouts "Scrubbers!" at schoolgirls and the only black character and the few female characters are cyphers. The newspaper headline has gone from the stage version, but the rest is still there.

Homophobia runs through both the film and the play. Homosexual acts were decriminalised in the UK in 1967, two years before the year in which Withnail and I is set, so you could argue that it is about homophobia rather than being homophobic. But a lot of the comedy is predicated on the idea that it is funny for a heterosexual man to be mistakenly thought of as gay, so there is a case to be answered. The audience advisory on The Rep’s web site warns of "racist terms and homophobic references". If you found the film refreshingly un-PC, then the stage show is that too, but if you found the film a bit unpleasant then the stage version will confirm your misgivings.

Handmade Films has invested in this show, so it is presumably hoping it has a life beyond its two-week run in Birmingham. It is an impressively well-made piece of theatre, but whether there is a mainstream theatre audience for a 37-year-old cult film with some very dated attitudes remains to be seen.

Reviewer: Andrew Cowie

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