Review: WITHNAIL AND I, Birmingham Rep

Robert Sheehan and Adonis Siddique take on the title roles in this stage adaptation of the beloved film

By: May. 15, 2024
Review: WITHNAIL AND I, Birmingham Rep
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Review: WITHNAIL AND I, Birmingham Rep “What we need is harmony, fresh air, stuff like that.” Almost 40 years after it first graced the big screen, cult classic film Withnail and I has been adapted for the stage – and it is currently in the middle of a limited engagement at the Birmingham Rep.

It’s 1969 and a pair of down-on-their-luck actors (Marwood and Withnail) are just about managing to hang onto their flat in Camden – but are having less fortune as far as work and their health are concerned. In a bid to get themselves out of this rut, they head up to the Cumbrian holiday home of one of Withnail’s rich relatives to get away from it all. However, they soon discover that country life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be...

In many ways this is the perfect film to adapt for the stage, with the theatrical thread that runs through it, but the sheer volume of funny, memorable and key quotes that have to make the journey from screen to stage means that (superficially) there is very little difference between the two versions.

Fortunately, the script is written by Bruce Robinson, who was also responsible for the screenplay; this means that any cuts, additions or amendments feel very natural, and the entire piece speaks with the same, authentic voice. Predictably it’s the famous quotes which get the biggest reaction, but the new material is also warmly received.

The best decision when making this into a live production was to include a band rather than just blasting recordings through the speakers. It adds to the energy of the piece, and makes it feel like a real event – particularly as it means the audience is treated to Sooz Kempner’s superlative vocals. Many of the songs on the film soundtrack feature here, with the inclusion of a decent range of other appropriate 60s classics. "Sunny Afternoon", “White Room” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” are definite highlights.

The Hamlet thread that lurks in the background of the film really comes to the fore, and appropriately so. It plays up to the new, theatrical environment in which the story is being told, and also tees up the final monologue. Sheehan’s delivery of the “What a piece of work is a man!” speech certainly makes you wonder what his own Hamlet could be like.

Review: WITHNAIL AND I, Birmingham Rep

Alice Power’s set design is exquisite. Tasked with providing various different locations, the range is ambitious but the scene transitions are ultimately very well executed. It’s a real treat to spot all of the fine details, as one impressive room morphs into yet another.

Malcolm Sinclair very nearly steals the show as Uncle Monty, delivering his double entendres with great élan and a bit of a glint in his eye. Adonis Siddique and Robert Sheehan are excellently cast as Marwood (or ‘and I’) and Withnail; their performances, when combined, suggest the history of their friendship, but also suggest that their bond could easily fracture.

Although demonstrably capable of independence, Siddique’s Marwood is incredibly neurotic and doesn’t help himself with his choices of narcotics. Shifting his narration to directly addressing the audience works brilliantly, and quickly draws the viewer in. Opposite him, Sheehan fills Richard E. Grant’s sizeable, sole-flapping shoes with aplomb, in a highly physical performance; his Withnail is recognisable but by no means an impersonation.

In adapting a film for the stage, you are inviting existing fans on a bit of a nostalgia trip, but this production is also a fun way to introduce individuals to the material if they haven’t yet seen the film. A classic dark comedy that has made a seamless transition to the stage.

Withnail and I is at the Birmingham Rep until 25 May

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan


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