Richard Lutz steps back four decades for the Jonathan Coe novel as it hits the Birmingham Rep stage
There’s a telling photograph on the cover of The Rotters’ Club theatre programme. It shows a group of mid-seventies grammar school boys in Birmingham: cocky, ready to roll, happy to pose and be posey in front of the camera. They’re the aspirational class lads. And Jonathan Coe’s novel brought their hopes, anxieties and fantasies sharply into focus in his successful novel of the same name.
Now it comes to The Birmingham Rep. And what a pleasure it is to see a Birmingham story, written by a Birmingham writer, staging the premiere in a Birmingham theatre by a young troupe of…you guessed it…Birmingham actors.
It’s never easy to transplant a book into a play or, for that matter, an opera into a movie or a painting into a musical. Many times it fails. This one doesn’t. The novel’s context is stripped away by adaptor Richard Cameron leaving us with what has to be the bare bones of Coe’s book and its era: From Callaghan to Thatcher, from the end of frugality to the pub bombings, from emerging prosperity to the Longbridge strikes and even from the ennui of prog music to the anger and spit of the punk generation.
The transformation is told through the eyes of Ben Trotter clearly a youthful Jonathan Coe – who loves his music, loves his dream girl and has an even more deep love for his grammar school pals (Coe himself was a King Edward lad).
The young cast, some of them in their teens, acquit themselves well: refreshing, vigorous, foul mouthed, sparky and, for the boys at least, fetid, sweaty and, of course, obsessed by sex.
Leading the pack is an elfin Charlie Mills as Ben, a south Birmingham shaggy-haired lad whose daily path on the number 62 bus takes him from post-war family complacency to the more rigorous world of school. He experiences the universe of changing music, the anger of politics, the ugliness of racism and, through a family tragedy, the vileness of the IRA murders in the city in 1974. There is growth and there is the allure of the future. Mills does teenage yearnings and anxieties very well. An A for him.
Other cast members flesh things out – Jasmin Melissa Hylton (see above) as the young teenager who longs for her older married lover and Haris Myers has a nasty sting as a fresh-faced proto National Front supporter. All thankfully use the Brummie accent, that only adds to the sense of place.
Some of the diction is lost in the cavern of The Rep although management says a curtain drawn across the back of this large theatre will help acoustics in some productions. It did in this one. Video designer Louis Price adds to the sense of the seventies with alluring images, headlines, Zappa and punk photos, old school pics and scrolling diary entries which highlight the kids’ emergence into a new changing world.
So, full marks for this cast from The Young Rep troupe. They had to deal with the stripping back of a good novel and some of the scripting did seem hit and miss and bitty at times. But in all a production worth seeing and one for this city to be proud of.
Until 9th April.