Withnail and I: “an era of mixed experiences and destinies”

A classic film becomes a theatre spectacular at Birmingham Rep, watched by Jessica Harris.

It takes quite some nerve to turn the cult film Withnail and I into a stage production, but this is what Sean Foley, Birmingham Rep’s Artistic Director, together with Bruce Robinson, who wrote the stage adaptation of his original film, have done. In doing so, they have managed to recreate the film’s many iconic locations and to reconstruct a sense of the late 1960s, a time when cultural values and lifestyles were shifting gear.

Two unemployed actors, Withnail and ‘I’ (his name Marwood is never stated), live in a rat-infested flat in Camden, with no friends other than each other and their drug dealer, Danny. Wanting a break from the city, Withnail persuades his wealthy Uncle Monty to lend them his ‘country hideaway’. So follows a sequence of events that raise issues that are both personal and political: social class and the urban/rural divide; friendship and the loneliness of closet homosexuality; the clash between the hippy-style optimism of the 1960s and a growing awareness that problems aren’t solved through dropping out into a world of drugs and music.

The sense of anarchy and chaos of the film is well captured in this stage production. Robert Sheehan as Withnail, always with bottle in hand or, if empty, then with a bottle of lighter fluid, presents a frenzied and restless character constantly in search of his next high in an attempt to block out reality. His delivery of much of the dry humour and irony in the piece is sheer entertainment.

Marwood, played by Adonis Siddique, is equally tortured but deals with his dilemmas by veering from philosophical musings to paranoid ramblings. The quieter of the two characters and the foil for Withnail’s abandon, we sometimes need a little more intensity from him for this to fully work. But as victim of the predatory Monty, played by Malcolm Sinclair, who is on the prowl in the isolated Cumbrian cottage whilst Withnail is passed out in the next bedroom, Siddique is utterly convincing, and the sense of dread felt by Marwood is well communicated.

Much of the first act is a set-up for the inevitable fall of Withnail in the second act, his sense of failure and inability to be happy displayed by his delivery of a soliloquy from Hamlet. The pathos of the scene as Marwood leaves him to pursue his own successful career could have been beefed up even more to underline the tragic ending.

The brilliant live band and soundtrack in this staging are superb. Whilst the band punctuates the action with extracts from songs of the time, from Procul Harum to Hendrix, from Cream to Norman Greenbaum and from the Kinks to the Doors, Monty’s character is represented by a recording of Vivaldi’s Spring.

The sets equally confirm the difference in experiences and privilege. Backdrops and pieces of staging are seamlessly changed from Withnail and Marwood’s grimy flat, to the cold and comfortless country cottage, to the sparse interiors of pubs and cafe. These spaces contrast with the plush interior of Monty’s London parlour. And, of course, the infamous Jaguar Mark 2 makes an appearance.

The band’s final number, All The Young Dudes by David Bowie, was a great finale and said all that needed saying about the ending of an era of such mixed experiences and destinies.

Withnail and I was directed by Sean Foley, set and costume design was by Alice Power and the musical director was Adam Sopp.

It runs at The Rep until 25th May. For further information visit Birmingham-rep.co.uk.

Pics – Manuel Harlan