w and I

Adonis Siddique (Marwood) and Robert Sheehan (Withnail) in their dingy Camden Town flat. Pictures: Manuel Harlanb

Withnail and I

Birmingham Rep


When it comes to cult films Withnail and I is in a class of its own, a black comedy classic that set a marker so far out in left field only the bravest or most foolhardy would dare to follow.

So, is the Rep brave or foolhardy in not only following our duo of unemployed actors but confining their somewhat hazy world of Camden Town, Chelsea and the Lake District, to the three walled box of a stage?

Brave certainly, and foolhardy as well considering the inherent dangers involved of stirring memories and prodding nostalgia, but we all know fortune favours the brave, so let’s just say they not only got away with it, this world premier is a bit of a triumph really, and it means Withnail and of course & I actually get work, acting, on stage.

Bruce Robinson’s original novel which morphed into a film script was set in 1969, and as a student in London at that time I can confirm an air of authenticity with our jobless actors and students living similar lifestyles, even down to the spaced-out purveyors of herbal remedies and potions, such as Danny, a character known to all . . . but more of that later. 

Robert Sheehan as Withnail and Adonis Siddique as I, (apparently Marwood was his name, not that anyone ever seemed to call him that) as the eponymous duo meander through life in an alcoholic haze either drinking, or searching for drink, hoping for jobs, or at least auditions, awaiting their Giro cheques (unemployment benefit payments in grandad’s day), avoiding the landlord and living in not quite a parallel, more of an off kilter universe.


Malcolm Sinclair as rich and rather lonely Uncle Monty

Washing up is the first real encounter we face with them, washing up being as alien a concept as the creatures spawned from discarded takeaways in the stained and bio-hazardous sink.

In the film we see the grunge in close up, on stage it is left to our imagination, which might in fact be worse as memories of student days flood back.

Then there is their need for money and a decision they need a break, a holiday, which means a visit to Montague H Withnail, Uncle Monty, arty, rich, randy and devotedly homosexual, who lends them the key to his little bolthole in Penrith.

It is a bolthole where he stays himself, where, as far as the locals know, he is, how you say, un French monsieur with his “grandson”’

It is a wonderful performance by Malcolm Sinclair as a drama queen extraordinaire, funny, marvellously so, yet at the same time rather sad with moments of real pathos.

So, key in hand our pair set off in a clapped out Jag with a missing headlight on their Lake District adventure.

Along the way we are to meet a violent Irishman threatening to rip Withnail’s head off, along with a farmer with a leg wrapped in polyethylene as the result of an amorous bull (don’t ask), an alcoholic El-Alamein veteran now landlord of the local, Jake the poacher who threatens you with dead eels, an unwelcoming tea shop owner and waitress and a policeman and police woman who stop the pair for more offences than you can count, so let’s just settle on drunken driving.

The motley characters are all played by Morgan Philpott, Matt Devitt, Adam Sopp and Sooz Kempner, who, by chance, also happen to be the excellent band, fronted by vocalist Kempner, under musical director Sopp, belting their way through the period soundtrack with numbers such as A Whiter Shade of Pale, All Along the Watchtower, Knights in White Satin . . .a playlist of memories.


Alcohol fuelled Marwood and Withnail giving Jaguar a bad name

Meanwhile back to the drink drive police stop which provides an ideal opportunity for Withnail to demonstrate Danny’s patented get out of jail free device for providing an alcohol free urine sample to fool the police. It should be pointed out at this stage that Danny’s thought processes are permanently influenced by his herbal and chemical intake while Withnail was, as was once said in Private Eye of George Brown, tired and emotional as a newt.

The pair are rushing back to London as I’s agent has sent him a telegram saying he is wanted for a part, an actual, real, acting on stage, part in a real play.

They arrive home to find Danny squatting in their flat. Ah, Danny, the high as a kite drug purveyor, slurred by Adam Young, wandering around with brain cells desperately trying to work in some sort of unison, rolling his patented Camberwell Carrot spliff that needs twelve papers to make. Why he is only wearing one shoe we never quite establish.

He brings with him Presuming Ed, his bodyguard, played by Israel J Fredericks, who goes into a sort of Om chant variation which suggests he has had perhaps too many free samples.

With I, now employed, an eviction notice having arrived, the bohemian lifestyle, which is posh for a drunken, uncreative permanent binge in this case, is coming to an inglorious end but it has been a glorious journey.

Sheehan is a high energy, bouncing Withnail, always at hyperspeed, while Siddique’s I, sod it. . . Marwood, is more retrospective and at times acts as our one man Greek chorus.

Withnail says whatever comes into his head to win the moment, such as telling Monty that  Marwood went to “the other place” meaning Eton instead of Harrow, chosen establishment of the Withnail’s, but Eton still made him “one of us”. Then there was his telling Monty, in secret, that Marwood was a “toilet trader” to make it easier to persuade him to loan the key for the Lakeland cottage. A lie which was to lead to a rather unfortunate exchange when Monty arrived for an unexpected visit to Penrith in anticipation of a scenario that was always a mere fiction!

Still at least there is food and wine, chairs to burn,  and chicken . . . perhaps best not to go there though, and three quite superb performances.

trio wandi

Adam Young (Danny), Robert Sheehan (Withnail) and Israel J. Fredericks (Presuming Ed)

Equal star billing must also go to the technical with a brilliant set and costumes from Alice Power with dingy flat, bolthole, pubs, tea shops all sliding in or dropping down seamlessly with  Akhila Krishnan’s video settings on a drop down full stage screen or three sided outdoor panorama bringing the story to life, aided by Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting, which, as scene went into scene in natural progression, was hardly noticed, which, paradoxically is a sign of good lighting design.

Director Sean Foley, the Rep’s artistic director, is turning the Rep into a major producing house and this is an exceptional production, visually stunning and with fine performances all around.

The Press night audience seemed to be aficionados of the original but forget all of that. If you have seen and liked the original this is a treat but it stands firmly on its own two feet as its own play.

 You need never have seen the original film, or known anything about it to appreciate what a wonderful piece of theatre this is, an anarchic black comedy written by Bruce Robinson for real authenticity, adapted from his own iconic 1987 film which he both wrote and directed.

We end with Marwood, with a now neat haircut and suit, saying goodbye and leaving for his acting job in Manchester with Withnail left alone in Regent’s Park in the rain with just a bottle of wine and an umbrella for company.

Withnail , the actor, breaks into Hamlet’s famous prose monologue to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Act II, Scene II. “I have of late - but wherefore I know not - lost all my mirth, . . .”

He ends with : "And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me: no, nor woman neither." then turns and walks off into oblivion. A sad moment in the play . . . but you do wander what a glorious Hamlet Sheehan would make.

The drink will be flowing freely in the dingy flat to 25-5-25.

Roger Clarke


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