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  • David Robinson

Withnail and I

Birmingham Rep until Saturday 25th May

*** “A faithful impersonation” 

Withnail and I, one of the most beloved and quoted films of all time, has been adapted by its originator Bruce Robinson for the Birmingham Rep, and directed by Sean Foley.

Set in London, in September of 1969, Withnail, a boozy eccentric actor, alongside his shy counterpart Marwood, head on "holiday by mistake" for some fresh country air and stiff drinks.

Bruce Robinson's script, in the main, is the star of the show. As we follow Withnail and I from their Camden rat-infested flat, to Monty's Penrith Pad to a local Tea Room where one of the finest lines available to humanity is drunkenly bellowed, the audience cheers and laughs along with their favourite cult quotes. There is something quite special about sharing your favourite lines with 800 other folks, but the payoff is short-lived and leaves you slightly empty. It begs the question, why not just watch the film?

Post pandemic, film to stage adaptations have seen a sharp rise for commercial reasons, and Withnail and I should draw bums to seats, as well as broaden the Rep's audience. If you are looking for an almost carbon copy of the Withnail and I scriptthis is your bag.  It is a great impersonation of the film. Watching feels like being part of a live studio audience, where the audience is encouraged to join in. If you were hoping for theatre to bring its raw, unique perspective on telling stories, and a theatrical reimaging, this it is not.

Adonis Siddique (Marwood) and Robert Sheehan (Withnail) faithfully reprise the roles and bring charisma, chaos, and pathos to the characters. A moment when the drama school trained actors, who are useless at most things, challenge each other to a sword fight, whilst drunk, is glorious. The exploration of their drugs and drunken male friendship, in all its highs and lows is amusing, and the end, like the film, is a heartbreaker. The ensemble closely impersonates the film's characters, and perhaps one of the most powerful theatrical devices in theatres arsenal is seen - the ability to bring the dead back to life. Hearing Richard Griffiths through Malcolm Sinclair's performance as Uncle Monty was a nice moment.

While the inclusion of a live band, reminiscent of the film's great soundtrack, is a great choice, their placement off stage for the most part feels under-utilised. 

The production does little to aid the fight in the uphill battle to entice audiences away from the comforts of Netflix and into the theatre. Saying that, the show capitalises on the film's nostalgia, and may bring a new audience to our wonderful regional theatre.

Jonathan Laurén

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