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Withnail and I, Birmingham Rep review — the stage adaptation flies by with a drunken lurch

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“There’s got to be some way out of here,” Sooz Kempner sings at the start of Sean Foley’s adaptation of the 1987 cult film. Withnail and me. It’s a complaint we soon share, as this production offers an ersatz version of the film with no imagination of its own.

Withnail and Marwood, played on screen by Richard E Grant and Paul McGann, are hired actors: Marwood winning auditions, Withnail consoling himself with alcohol when he fails to do the same. They take a vacation from their flat in Camden; here grime and grunge are steeped in the musty walls of Alice Power’s set.

The film’s beats are respectfully rebuffed, including Withnail drinking lighter fluid for an ethanol hit. But the pace and the plot have their own drunken wobble, jumping between settings and episodes: a pint in the pub or thrown from a cafe. The atmosphere is similarly bland, while long scene changes exacerbate the sense of disjointed sketches. Drops of Sixties music echo over these transitions that feel incongruous with the mundane action and seem to exist more to try and electrocute her alive.

This noise of interest comes from Malcolm Sinclair’s Uncle Monty. With a plum crawler orbiting Jacob Rees-Mogg, he swirls his words around his mouth like the wine he adores, pumping his plosives like corks. Although he elevates the comedy that relies on innuendos like “Do you want a sausage?”, the story of the calm young man trying to evade the predatory gay man is stretched and feels retrograde, with Marwood’s horrified cries of “I almost have a headache. !”

An elegantly dressed man sits on a couch in a wood-paneled room;  a standard lamp lights up behind him
Malcolm Sinclair as Uncle Monty © Manuel Harlan

As Withnail, Robert Sheehan physically suggests a man who is more liquid than solid, his body tumbling across the stage like the booze bottles often in hand. But he’s also tiresome company with his histrionics and snarling. Sheehan maintains a hysterical tone throughout, even in lines like, “Don’t threaten me with a dead fish.”

The character lacks depth until the last moment when, unceremoniously abandoned by Marwood, he slowly crackles, his broad smiles melting into a tremor as he bellows Hamlet’s soliloquy “What work is a man” into the rain. It’s a powerful and moving bolt of tragicomedy and pathos that was long overdue. Adonis Siddique as Marwood does not convey the character aware that the cost of his company is that his life is heading towards the same hopeless oblivion.

There is no comment about this unemployment or the sociopolitical context. Druggie Danny prophesies how the hedonism of the Sixties would collapse into the stagflation of the Seventies: “London is a country coming down from its ride. . . and there will be many refugees.” But it feels like a late, jarring moment for the show’s otherwise plain register.

This is adaptation as imitation, so blindly devoted to the source that it retains its mold and musty air. By the end, that lighter fluid doesn’t seem so unappealing anymore.

★★☆☆☆

Until May 25, birmingham-rep.co.uk