Review: Rotterdam (Rose Theatre, Kingston)

Jon Brittain’s important and funny play heads out on a UK tour

Bethan Cullinane and Lucy Jane Parkinson in Rotterdam
Bethan Cullinane and Lucy Jane Parkinson in Rotterdam
(© © Helen Maybanks )

Following a West End run in 2017, Jon Brittain's play Rotterdam embarks on a UK tour, with a production which is as observant, engaging, and heartfelt as it ever was.

It's the days leading up to New Year's Eve in Rotterdam, the second largest city in Holland. Alice (Bethan Cullinane) hunches over her laptop, putting off sending a coming out email to her parents. Before she's about to hit send, her girlfriend Fiona (Lucy Jane Parkinson) confides in her that she feels that she's a man, and would like to transition to become a man named Adrian. What ensues is not just a story of Adrian's transition, but a story of each of the four characters searching for their own place in the city, finding their identity, and re-discovering love.

Brittain's script is masterfully written. Both sensitive and caring, it also allows comedy to naturally rise from situations. When Adrian buys a binder for the first time, Alice caringly checks it won't "make your eczema flare up". The mundanity in a life-changing situation is what grounds these characters in humanity and gets the audience on side. Unfortunately, Donnacadh O'Briain's direction has the actors shouting more often than is perhaps necessary, and arguments and door-slamming mean some more emotional moments are lost.

Ellan Parry's compact set design situates Rotterdam in a box, filled with neon colours and LED signs. Accompanied by Keegan Curran's thumping pop music which is played in (quite long) scene changes, you'd think you're in a nightclub. Parry's bright colours are significant; in a room full of blue balloons lies a singular pink one, and it is only fitting that whilst Alice wears a pink party hat, Adrian sports a matching blue one.

In this loud production it is the performances which shine through. Parkinson's portrayal of Adrian is carefully handled and Parkinson brings raw pain to the role. There's a devastating moment in which Adrian, wanting Alice to still love him, downs a bottle of beer, strips and puts on a dress and heels. The image of Adrian looking into the mirror is perhaps the lasting image of the play. Cullinane plays Alice as flighty and insecure as she struggles to come to terms with her own identity, seeking solace in Lelani (Ellie Morris). A young Dutch party girl, Lelani is confident in her sexuality as a gay woman and it's a shame that this portion of the story feels a little clichéd. Rounding up the cast of four is Elijah W Harris as Josh, Alice's ex-lover and Adrian's brother. Harris is instantly likeable and delivers some cracking one-liners.

Rotterdam one of a clutch of vital plays which bring LGBTQIA+, and particularly trans voices, to the front and centre of theatre. It's not just an educating play, it is one about love: who, how and why we love.