Review: Rotterdam, Arts Theatre ‘An Absolute Must-See’

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Oh, I have a lot of love for Rotterdam. A lot of love, indeed. This is such a heartfelt, tender but witty, even electric, show on love, transgenderism, and the importance of knowing who you are. And I know I’m not the only one with love for this show as the curtain call, on the night I went, was greeted with a thunderous standing ovation from a hugely appreciative audience.

It’s current day Rotterdam and we find ourselves in a flat with British ex-pat, Alice (Alice McCarthy), a woman who is wrestling with pressing Send on an email she has drafted to her parents. Her girlfriend Fiona (Anna Martine Freeman) is winding her up but it’s a big email – Alice is proposing to come out. Not something you might do via email to unsuspecting parents, perhaps, but Alice wants to make sure her words are just right, and that her grammar and spelling is perfect.

For Alice has lived in Rotterdam for seven years, spinning a yarn to her family back home that Fiona, her only ever girlfriend, is simply a friend, a roommate. But if she’s to win her bet with Fiona that she’ll come out before Angelina Jolie does, now is the time.

Only Alice’s best laid plans are put asunder when Fiona reveals that she now understands that she is transgender. That she is not a woman, but a man in a female body. And asks to not be called Fiona anymore, but Adrian. And asks for Alice’s support in his transition. Only Adrian’s transition now forces Alice to consider whether she is in fact gay, and to ask herself, who was the person she fell in love with.

And so what follows is a wonderful and utterly engaging exploration of identity and the challenges of transition, all complicated with love triangles, workplace politics, the need to break free, and family ties. 

The writing from Jon Brittain is mighty fine indeed. The plot is beautifully crafted, increasing complications revealing themselves perfectly. And the dialogue is bang on the money too. There is not a single careless word here. It is so well structured. Every action has consequences, each off-the-cuff remark comes back in some way later in the play. No wonder the show won the Olivier this year for Outstanding Achievement in Affiliate Theatre. It’s not just the importance of the subject matter that marks it out, but the excellence of the writing too.

And, more than this, the characters are fully fleshed out, wonderfully drawn. In particular, Alice is one of the most engaging lead characters I’ve seen in a while, and wonderfully realised by Alice McCarthy. Alice is complex, confused… Her cowardice and confidence an internal battle in constant motion.

But, simply, this play is so damn funny. It’s hilarious. And to weave such wit into such important subject matter as getting to the truth of who you are is a marvellous achievement. Let me just say that again, this is DAMN funny. Well observed and witty.

Direction comes from Donnacadh O’Briain and he has created a production that fizzes and hums with energy. Its vibrant colour palette, its pulsating soundtrack, its almost larger-than-life feel… It’s such a hook. And it’s impossible to not leave the auditorium and not immediately bring up Robyn on your playlist.

I’ve seen a few reviews with comments along the lines of, ‘this is a play on transgender issues but its subjects of love and identity are universal/apply to everyone,’ or ‘there’s something here for everyone, not just the transgender and LGB communities.’ I always wince when I read these. They’re well-meaning but problematic.

Let’s be very careful about minimising the subject matter. Yes, there are universal themes, here. Of course there are. That is true of all (most?) plays. But we don’t go around saying, yeah Hamlet’s an over-privileged white man who’s never had to work a day in his life but there is something here for everyone, guys, even if you’re not a straight white man! This is a play that platforms transgenderism and that should be celebrated. As is the fact that this is one hell of a production. What a wonderful show.

Arts Theatre, London, to July 15, 2017

All production images by Hunter Canning.

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