Withnail and I review – cult classic becomes an astonishing, rapier-sharp stage comedy

The show currently plays at the Birmingham Rep

Morgan Philpott (W**ker), Adonis Siddique (Marwood) and Robert Sheehan (Withnail). © Manuel Harlan
Morgan Philpott (W**ker), Adonis Siddique (Marwood) and Robert Sheehan (Withnail). © Manuel Harlan

The film Withnail and I first emerged in 1987 – yet it is perhaps surprising that a story so perfectly suited to theatre has taken so long to reach the stage.

Much of the reason is because Bruce Robinson, who wrote the original novel and film, hadn’t felt potential adapters really grasped the spirit of the story. And so the key to the success of this production, premiered at Birmingham Rep, is that Robinson has taken the bull by the horns and adapted it himself.

In doing so, he has created a hilarious and eccentric production in the true tradition of British theatrical comedy. The stage version follows the film very closely, so closely in fact that there are members of the audience who can quote chunks alongside the actors – just pray those people aren’t sitting next to you!

The story, for those who don’t know the film, follows the adventures of two out-of-work and booze-fuelled London actors who decide to take a holiday in the Lake District – and rapidly realise they are totally out of their comfort zones. But the beauty of Withnail and I lies less in the narrative and more in the characters who are so larger than life, and the rapier-sharp dialogue penned by Robinson. The interplay between the two men and a host of other characters from drug dealers to farmers is just magical from start to finish.

Robert Sheehan dominates the stage as the garrulous dipsomaniac Withnail. Swishing around in his ankle-length coat and plastic bag shoes, he spouts observations and aphorisms with lightning speed and captures the comedy of the role perfectly. A mix of the sublime and the ridiculous, this is a man who can fence with a sword and quote Shakespeare and yet is so desperate for alcohol he will drink lighter fluid.

Adonis Siddique gives us a thoroughly anxious Marwood, the ‘I’ character who switches between speaking to Withnail and to the audience, taking us into his head and his neuroses. Siddique is the ideal foil to Sheehan in a show which balances complete disregard for the consequences of each action with a total dread of them.

Adding a note of winsome maturity to the tale is Withnail’s Uncle Monty, who owns the cottage where the young men take their trip. In some ways, Uncle Monty is a challenging role because his rampant homosexuality and attempts to seduce Marwood are without doubt a caricature, but Malcolm Sinclair carries it off: we see the humanity alongside the humour.

Directed by Birmingham Rep artistic director Sean Foley, this is a quick-fire production, racing us from one scene into another, each one offering glimpses of the topsy-turvy world of Withnail and Marwood.

The staging is ingenious creating a series of totally different scenes and backdrops with apparent ease. Designed by Alice Power, the set is hugely adaptable and makes effective use of the scale of the Rep stage. It is also greatly enhanced by imaginative and detailed video projection designed by Akhila Krishnan, and Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting. This is used with brilliant visual effect in the driving scenes when the two men sit behind the wheel of the front half of a classic Jaguar while the city and countryside flash by with the rain pouring and the day darkening.

The production makes fabulous use of music, taking us back in time to the late ’60s with a score designed and composed by Ben and Max Ringham featuring a host of well-known songs. The live band double up as a host of different characters in the show from police officers to pub and café visitors.

A co-production between Birmingham Rep, Handmade Films and George Waud, the team no doubt have their sights set on either a West End transfer or a national tour. Withnail and I is Foley’s final production as artistic director at the Rep and it is certainly an impressive work to conclude his five years at the helm.