Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Rotterdam’, which is at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre until Saturday 27th April and Theatr Clwyd in June.
“Dear Mum and Dad. There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you. I’m … a Lebanon”.
It’s an e-mail Alice doesn’t send, but it doesn’t half set the tone for an exceptional play, which is exceptionally well executed.
Be not alarmed. ‘Rotterdam’ may be about someone transgendering, but it is certainly not an evening of righteous, right-on breast beating. (Though breasts are badly treated). This is more akin to an orthodox sit-com with tons of laughs and many deeply sincere moments. It’s just that it covers much more adventurous territory, and the play is much more affecting, than the usual domestic fare.
It is a sublimely constructed play which uses New Year’s Eve as a metaphor for change. And the change that the central character Fiona has decided upon is one of gender. As a girl, she was a Tom Boy who liked other girls. Nowadays, she sees herself as a man in her dreams. She can live the lie no longer. “I just wanna use The Gents”, she cries.
The trouble is she is in a long-term lesbian relationship with sensible Alice, the girl friend she nicked off her brother. But in a neatly written love rectangle, Alice is seeing a dippy woman from work. So, both the comedy and the tragedy come from complication and cowardice.
Jon Brittain’s crisp and dynamic dialogue (which feels like it has been immaculately researched) is sensitively handled by all four actors.
Fiona (who becomes Adrian) is superbly played with anger and bewilderment by Lucy Jane Parkinson (who describes herself as a non-binary actor).
Her worried ignorance about the process and its consequences hangs over her. “If I had a willy, what would I do with it?”
Over the interval she is transformed from a gobby woman into a gobby man…. using posture, gesture, and the habit of thrusting her hands deep into big pockets she didn’t have before, to signal the change. She’s still worried, as in all domestic situations, about the impact of events on her loved ones. Though, in a moment that rings sublimely true, when she finally calls her mother, mother’s immediate concern is whether she needs any money for the operation. I came away seriously wondering is any other actor could play this part as well as Lucy Jane Parkinson.
She is perfectly matched by Bethan Cullinane’s reserved performance as her sweetheart Alice. This is Rotterdam and she is a boring secretary in a boring shipping office. But a spliff changes all that. Alice loosens up big time and Cullinane’s transformation scene is as powerful as Parkinson’s. Her weed-induced, ranting confession is a wonderfully sustained scene of hyper-ventilation; her dilemma boiling down to one passionately poignant line; “I like girls, and now you’re a man”.
She is enveloped and enlivened by Lelani, played with great gusto by the Mischief Theatre graduate Ellie Morris, who cavorts relentlessly round the stage. She is brimming with attitude. Like a young Joan Rivers on speed, she cuts through the crap with boundless energy and bountiful barbs. It’s the most believable completely over-the-top performance I have ever seen.
The straight guy is the comedy’s straight guy. Elijah W Harris’s performance as Fiona’s brother, Josh, could easily slip through this show’s fingers – but he’s the rock around which the stars orbit; a sensitive soul who mops up the angst and still cares for his little sister … even when she no longer is.
The story is played out on a box set that is so small it’s like watching a doll’s house. Amongst director Donnacadh O’Briain’s set pieces is a wonderful sequence with bright blue balloons which float around the floor signifying the New Year Celebrations indoors and then, with frosty light and a little dry ice, become a frozen canal outdoors. It’s a really clever idea.
But the best thing about this show is its bravery. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to an evening of transgender trauma…but the dashing dialogue, punchy performances and the deeply human humour make this a night to savour. I applaud The Grand for programming it … and urge you to go.