The Rotters' Club (Birmingham Rep)
Birmingham Rep's Young Company perform the world premiere of Jonathan Coe's novel
This adaptation of Jonathan Coe's best-selling coming-of-age tale set in 1970's Birmingham is an ideal vehicle for the actors of the Young Rep.
The young performers grasp the production with enthusiasm, bringing their own touch of teen spirit to the angst-ridden school days of Ben Trotter and his friends.
Their teenage love trysts, rivalries, dreams and fears are set against a backdrop of industrial unrest, black-outs, racism and IRA attacks. This is an era in which strikers fought with police, Birmingham was bombed and the National Front called for a return to England for the ‘English' – all of which are graphically featured in the show.
Adapted by Richard Cameron and directed by Gwenda Hughes, the production is over-ambitious in trying to cram so much of the novel into a two-and-a-half hour show. There's an impressionistic feel to the production with scenes short and swiftly paced and that can lead to a sense of disconnect with the story. While the first half is highly concentrated, the second lacks focus and becomes a series of separated scenes with no clear narrative.
Though the team do capture the nightmare of Birmingham's pub bombings very effectively – the portrayal is simple and yet no less agonising in its intensity.
Designed by Michael Holt, the sets are lively with effective use of video which snapshot newspaper headlines, school books, concert tickets and love notes onto the rear of the stage – creating a scrapbook of ephemera of the period.
There is a real sense of nostalgia to the production and particularly for people who know the Birmingham landmarks of the time from Barbarella's club to the immense Longbridge car plant. This sense of time and place is enhanced by the frequent references to the music of the period from Roxy Music and David Essex to the dawn of punk.
The performances from the Young Rep are strong. Charlie Mills balances Ben's sense of wonder at all that life has to offer him with a teenage reluctance to fully grasp its consequences. Anna Bradley is the ever-faithful female friend Claire Newman and Alice McGowan is Ben's sister Lois whose life changes in one moment.
The Young Rep offers young people a wonderful opportunity to work together with professionals on productions which are showcased in the main house of one of the UK's leading regional theatres. The sense of dedication shows throughout this production and there is no shortage of talent among the young cast.
The one area in which a good many of the youngsters could improve though is to slow their diction a fraction – it would make them much clearer to hear and give this production an added edge.
The Rotters' Club runs at The Rep until 9 April 2016.