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This spin-off doesn’t quite make it

The Birmingham Rep has a coup – the stage premiere of the Britflick cult classic Withnail and I (1987), which made a star of Richard E Grant as the titular bohemian, the embodiment of the divisive end of the 60s. If he has a triumph what he was singing about is another matter.

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

The story has always been a fairly thin one: flamboyant but failed actor Withnail and more promising but troubled thespian Marwood (Paul McGann in the film) defect from abandoned Camden to the wet Lake District for an ill-advised sojourn, courtesy of Withnail’s predator. uncle Monty, who makes an unexpected late-night arrival and some unwanted overtures. The film’s appeal lay in its quotable lines, mainly from the idiosyncratic 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, grateful or outraged) cannot fail to detect the tension inherent in the transposition, as achieved here. Where the camera might zoom in on an outrageous bacon sandwich or a rotting kitchen sink, the wretched detail is a distance from the scene. Alice Power’s set allows for multiple locations – and some useful stage-setting film projections – but is defeated by the quagmire and filth of the source material: the rain is far from wet simulation; never tremble with Withnail in the cottage, or you’re not worth the mud on his makeshift boots, and—horror—it’s goodbye to charging the bull.

Given these limitations, there is even more pressure on the two executives who step into impossible shoes. Where “larger than life” has worked well on screen, compared to the nuances, too often it’s as if Robert Sheehan’s reproach and Adonis Siddique, as his put-upon friend, are shouting lines like slogans, as loud as the briefly seen backing band Sounds of the 60s: Procol Harum, The Kinks, but not the Beatles).

Sheehan has a great air but lacks the tangible insecurity and career envy, you miss Grant’s snarling smile and hysterical desolation. Siddique, who occasionally directs his narration to us, is more of a figure throughout time who only comes into his own when Monty makes his moves. Like the latter, Malcolm Sinclair bears a slight resemblance to grunting pig Richard Griffiths, but combines broad lines with a more subtle calibration.

I take no pleasure in reporting such disappointing news. If the initiates attend it as if it were a tribute evening, where some of the more familiar lines (“We want the best wines available to mankind…”) and prominent scenes (i.e. “the carrot of Camberwell”) are performed mechanic, for the expected cheers. , then it serves a function. But something has gone wrong when the closing quotations from Hamlet do not sound a great depth of psychological angst. To borrow a line from Shakespeare’s play – “preparation is everything”. The sober truth is that this doesn’t feel ready.

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