After the anti-LGBT+ hate crime two of the Rotterdam actors experienced in Southampton last week, it was good to see them back on stage and the Manchester crowd taking them straight to their hearts.
Jon Brittain’s award-winning play is a clever, funny, heart-warming story of love, gender, sexuality and courage. It is also deeply moving, taking the audience on a rollercoaster of emotions, and I admit – I did shed a tear!
With the auditorium lights still up, the actors take to the stage, making a real connection with the audience. Europop music pumps out, and the gorgeous, simple set with its paintings of containers, ports and bridges, transports us to an apartment in Rotterdam, Holland.
It’s New Year in Holland, and our story begins with Alice (Rebecca Banatvala) trying to find the courage to tell her parents that she is a lesbian, and living with her girlfriend. Alice, a true analytical introvert, in agony about ‘coming out’, thinks that this complex issue can be best dealt with by email. Fiona, her girlfriend, is very used to Alice’s procrastination, and has a bet with her as to when or whether she will ever tell her parents.
Fiona, played by the fantastic Lucy Jane Parkinson, is the star of the show. When we first meet her, she is lesbian, happily attending her lesbian book club, with funny quips about whether Angelina Jolie is gay or not and taking pride in outing Jodie Foster before anyone else. As a lesbian myself, I identified with so many of the jokes, and the relationship dynamics of this couple. Brittain’s dialogue is wonderful and never patronises the characters or the audience.
As Alice readies herself to send the email, Fiona too has her own revelation – finding the courage to tell Alice she identifies as a man, in fact she thinks she has always been a man trapped in a woman’s body.
As Fiona begins transitioning to Adrian, flaws in the relationship with Alice begin to surface. Alice’s co-worker, Lelani soon steps in and what begins as mere flirtation soon becomes seduction. Stella Taylor is wonderful as Lelani, portraying a very confident, very Dutch, and rather stunning millennial. Alice is, at first, a reluctant participant in the affair, but fireworks ensue with Lelani on the frozen canals of Rotterdam.
The play has only four actors, who through Donnacadh O’Brians’ direction, keep you absolutely captivated throughout. Ellan Parry’s clever stage design – with just two chairs and two coffee tables – manages to take us from Rotterdam apartment, to club, to pub, to station and even to a frozen canal on New Year’s eve. Richard Williamson’s lighting design adds to the atmosphere, enhancing the neon lights and colours of the set.
The play is a wonderful montage of courage and transition. Courage as Adrian becomes the person he always was, “When I dream… I dream as a man.” And courage eventually for Alice to tell Adrian that she wants to grieve because she feels she has lost Fiona, despite Adrian’s insistence that “I’m not ill. You don’t have to treat me like I’m dying”.
Everyone in the play is going through transition. Lucy Jane Parkinson brilliantly illustrates the challenges a transgender man deals with, from getting angry with a man dressed as a lion when he identifies Adrian as female, to the heart-breaking moment when he exhibits sheer joy when Lelani thinks he is his brother (and a man!), just at the moment Lelani has declared her love to Alice.
Each individual and relationship in Adrian’s life is affected by his actions. Adrian’s brother, Josh can see what is happening, and tries his best to help, but even he cannot stop what happens when the egocentric aspects of Adrian’s transition come to the fore. Paul Heath is wonderful as Josh, a brother who accepts his new brother, and perhaps delivers one of the most beautiful parts of the play in his interactions with Alice.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to think of Rotterdam and arrived expecting a night of very tense and serious theatre. What I experienced was a play that deals with the complexity of relationships head-on and does so with glorious wit, humour and wonderful dialogue. Whether you are gay, lesbian, straight, binary or transgender, I defy you not to enjoy this wonderful production.★ ★ ★ ★
Read our interview with the cast of Rotterdam.