Withnail and I, Birmingham Rep, review: Spin-off doesn’t quite nail it

Adonis Siddique (as Marwood) and Robert Sheehan (Withnail) at Birmingham Rep
Adonis Siddique (as Marwood) and Robert Sheehan (Withnail) at Birmingham Rep - Manuel Harlan

The Birmingham Rep has a coup on its hands – the stage premiere of the Britflick cult classic Withnail and I  (1987), which made a star of Richard E Grant as the titular bohemian, embodiment of the dissolute fag-end of the Sixties. Whether it has a triumph to crow about is another matter.

Bruce Robinson – who wrote and directed the screenplay – has himself shaped this spin-off, albeit it’s a cut and paste exercise rather than an adventurous reinvention. While I applaud outgoing artistic director Sean Foley (who directs this) for his palpably successful bid to broaden the appeal of the Rep’s repertoire, there have to be obvious gains when the property is as cherished as this one. But after two hours, it feels as if it has gone through the motions without any significant break-through.

The story was always a pretty slender one: flamboyant but failing actor Withnail and his more promising but twitchy thespian sidekick Marwood (Paul McGann in the film) defect from derelict Camden to the sodden Lake District for an ill-advised sojourn, courtesy of Withnail’s predatory uncle Monty, who makes an unexpected nocturnal arrival and some unwanted overtures. The film’s appeal lay in its quotably droll lines, mainly from the bibulous Withnail, a Peter O’Toole manqué, and its portrait of an England both buoyed and battered by its rebellious phase.

Even the most indulgent gaze (and die-hard fans could go either way on this, grateful or indignant) can’t fail to spot the strain inherent in the transposition, as it’s realised here. Where the camera could go up close on a revolting bacon-sandwich or putrid kitchen-sink, the squalid detail is at one remove on stage. Alice Power’s set allows for multiple locations – and some useful, scene-setting film-projection – but it’s defeated by the bog and grime of the source material: rain falls in far from drenching simulation; you never shiver with Withnail in the cottage, or credit the mud on his improvised boots and – horror – it’s adios to the bull charge.

Given these limitations, there’s even more pressure on the two principals stepping into impossible shoes. Where ‘larger than life’ worked well on screen, offset against nuance, all too often it’s as if Robert Sheehan’s reprobate and Adonis Siddique as his put-upon pal are bellowing lines like catchphrases, as thunking as the briefly glimpsed backing band (dropping in Sixties sounds: Procol Harum, the Kinks, but no Beatles).

Sheehan has a swaggering dandy air, but lacks tangible insecurity and career envy, you miss Grant’s snarling smile and hysteric desolation. Siddique, sometimes addressing his narration out to us, is more of a tag-along figure, who only comes into his own when Monty makes his moves. As the latter, Malcolm Sinclair is little like the grunting porcine Richard Griffiths, but combines broad strokes with a subtler wistful calibration.

It gives me no pleasure to report such underwhelmed tidings. If the initiated attend this as if were some tribute night, whereby some of the most familiar lines (“We want the finest wines available to humanity…”) and salient scenelets (viz “the Camberwell carrot”) are mechanically enacted, for expected cheers, then it serves a function. But something has gone awry when the closing quotations from Hamlet sound no great depths of psychological angst. To borrow a line from Shakespeare’s play – “the readiness is all”. The sober truth is that this doesn’t feel ready.

Until May 25. Tickets:  0121 236 4455; birmingham-rep.co.uk

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