Review: Jon Brittain’s Rotterdam shoots an arrow right at the heart of the human condition ★★★★

Rotterdam at the Arts Theatre: Photo courtesy of Hunter Canning

Tired of unrelentingly bad news? Need some sunshine to drive away the rain? Then follow the rainbow to the Arts Theatre, currently home to the sensationally funny and deeply moving Olivier Award-winning transfer of Rotterdam. With its central themes of transgender identity, sexuality and non-linear relationships, I must admit that I expected an evening of tense, serious theatre – not a bit of it. While Rotterdam tackles challenging issues of identity head on, it does so with wit, humour and a script that dances off the page.

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Rotterdam At The Arts Theatre: Alice McCarthy (Alice) and Ellie Morris (Lelani). Photo courtesy of Hunter Canning

The Arts Theatre’s somewhat austere auditorium lends itself perfectly to a production that began life outside the bright lights of the West End, before wowing London and Broadway audiences. The Arts lends a welcome intimacy to what, at times, are cleverly contained performances. Ellan Parry’s clever design, too, lends the simple set a simplicity that suggests a limited budget but boundless creativity. The feeling of energy is further aided by Richard Williamson’s excellent, slightly psychedelic lighting and punctuated by Keegan Curran’s sometimes understated, sometimes wonderfully bonkers sound design.

Alice (Alice McCarthy) is an analytical introvert, facing the agony of coming out as a Lesbian to her parents – by email. Well, that would be if she could ever click send. Her partner, Fiona (Anna Martine Freeman), is being as supportive as she can – she’s used to Alice procrastinating… even after 7 years living in Rotterdam Alice still hasn’t learned Dutch (probably because everyone in Holland speaks English).

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Rotterdam At The Arts Theatre: Anna Martine Freeman (Fiona/Adrian) and Alice McCarthy (Alice). Photo courtesy of Hunter Canning

Despite some archetypes and clichés about Lesbian book clubs and bringing Jodi Foster into their arguments, writer Jon Brittain never strays into patronising either his characters or his audience. There are plenty of twists in a richly mapped plot – the first being Fiona’s revelation that she believes she is a man, something she has always felt but never expressed – until now.

Costume changes framed in doorways add to a sense of energy and inclusion as characters inner thoughts are laid bare. Soon, as Fiona “outs” alter-ego Adrian, flaws in the relationship with Alice begin to surface. Alice’s co-worker Lelani (played with a gutsy dynamism by Ellie Morris) soon steps in and what begins as mere flirtation soon becomes seduction. Alice is, at first, a reluctant participant in the affair, but fireworks ensue with Lelani more than happy to light the blue touch-paper.

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Rotterdam At The Arts Theatre: Ed Eales-White (Josh) and Anna Martine-Freeman (Fiona/Adrian). Photo courtesy of Hunter Canning

What writer Jon Brittain so cleverly captures and reflects is the sense of transition – not only for Fiona in becoming Adrian, but also in the transition for everyone around. Each individual and each relationship in Adrian’s life is affected by his actions and as Adrian battles to keep those people and their relationships a part of his new life, gradually his own life begins to unravel. As Adrian/Fiona says, “I’m not ill. You don’t have to treat me like I’m dying”. But in a sense Fiona is dying – and that grief is something Alice is finding extremely hard to handle.

Alice’s coping strategy with everything is to analyse it – sometimes to great comic effect, as she desperately tries to google her way out of every difficult situation.

If the sense of living in the wrong body is something many of us would find hard to relate to, it is perhaps best understood when expressed most simply by Adrian – “When I dream… I dream as a man.”

That Rotterdam moves, provokes thought and does so in the most entertaining of ways is credit to four outstanding performances from the cast, but they are gifted some delicious one-liners. Even after explaining by email to her parents that she is now part of a Lesbian couple, Alice’s realisation that “at the very least I’m going to have to add a p.s…” is one of the most apposite.

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Rotterdam At The Arts Theatre: Alice McCarthy (Alice) and Ed Eales-White (Josh). Photo courtesy of Hunter Canning

Rotterdam also shoots an arrow right at the heart of the human condition and is unafraid to explore the darker, more selfish traits in us all. Whilst her depiction of Adrian is deeply compassionate, Anna Martine Freeman is equally unafraid to acknowledge the more egocentric aspect of transitioning. One feels intensely the conflicted emotions of both Adrian when he “passes” the test of being taken for a man and Alice, who at the same moment realises that Adrian is so bound up in himself that he can’t feel the earthquake as their relationship shatters.

Alice’s revelation later into the play that she understood her sexuality aged nine is exquisitely written with integrity and humour, and goes a very long way to explaining both how simple and how complex all our senses of identity are.

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Rotterdam At The Arts Theatre: Alice McCarthy (Alice) and Ellie Morris (Lelani). Photo courtesy of Hunter Canning

Even if you’ve never experienced what it’s like to be a Lesbian in a northern European city or transitioning from female to male whilst living with your lover and her brother, Rotterdam is a must. Jon Brittain takes the extraordinary and makes it seem both ordinary and spellbinding.

Final nods must go to Ed Eales-White’s fine comic portrayal of Adrian’s brother, Josh and Donnacadh O’Briain, whose skillful direction imbues the play with fluidity and a deep understanding of – and empathy for – the subject matter. Despite the plaudits heaped upon this year’s other great homage to the LGBT community, Angels in America, I found Rotterdam far more entertaining and far more successful as a piece of pure drama.

Like the city, Rotterdam is a play where nothing stands still.

Rotterdam by Jon Brittain
Book tickets for Rotterdam today.
Where: Arts Theatre, 6-7 Great Newport Street, London WC2H 7JB
When: Wednesday 21st June – Saturday 15th July 2017
Running time: 2 hours 15m including one interval
The nearest underground stations are Leicester Square (on the Northern and Piccadilly lines), Piccadilly Circus (on the Piccadilly and Bakerloo lines) and Charing Cross (on the Bakerloo and Northern lines).  The nearest rail station is Charing Cross.