Rotterdam is a play that tackles some major, complex issues of sexuality and gender fluidity. Yet where you might expect high intensity, Jon Brittain’s play is a genuinely funny, light-hearted comedy that’s provocative only in its frank views and normalising of difference.
Alice (Alice McCarthy) is in the process of coming out to her parents, repeatedly drafting an email that could change her relationship with her family forever. She’s interrupted, though, by girlfriend Fiona (Anna Martine) who comes out herself as transgender and wishes to live her life as a man named Adrian. What does this mean for Alice? Is she straight now? Or still gay? Do we even need labels, or can love conquer difference?
At times it does all feel a bit forced, like you can see the cogs of Brittain’s brain working, the puzzle pieces slotting together. There are the contrasting views of the two main characters and their obviously diverging trajectories: Alice’s Bridget Jones-esque formality and Fiona/Adrian’s quirky boyishness. There are the stock periphery characters both used for comic effect: Ed Eales-White’s gormless yet sensitive brother Josh who naturally has the simplest yet clearest viewpoint, and Jessica Clark’s seductive ‘other woman’ Lelani who represents everything Alice isn’t, the freedom she doesn’t have, and the eccentric fashion sense she could only dream of. And setting the play at New Year, itself a time of transition, feels incredibly trite. The ending then wraps things up all too neatly.
Further, there’s a second agenda here in locating the play in Holland. This isn’t just anywhere, it’s Rotterdam (as the song sort of goes). Whilst this does create a sense of distance and otherness for the audience, it also leads to a comparison between the two countries that’s only heightened by the heavily British accents of the lead characters. Perhaps Holland is meant to seem the more progressive, modern and accepting country, with Britain appearing uptight by comparison. It’s more of a secondary point though, a backdrop that merely hints at a wider context.
Yet there’s just something about Rotterdam, its honesty, warmth, and openness without prejudice. The heart-warming script is littered with amusing one-liners, drawing a sympathetic view of all perspectives in this complex web of gender fluidity. Martine’s sensitive portrayal of Fiona/Adrian humanises the whole process of transitioning, her struggles somehow relatable. Yet where you’d expect Alice’s lack of understanding to make her the villain of the piece, her predicament is totally understandable as she deals with not only her own sexuality but that of her girlfriend. It’s a beautiful and nuanced performance from McCarthy that highlights the play’s central theme of being comfortable in your own skin. Even if there’s a lack of chemistry between the leads, the individual performances are especially moving. Eales-White meanwhile is lovable as Josh, whilst Clark is truly convincing as Dutch native Lelani.
And in addition to the modern pop feel of Ellan Parry’s set design, there’s a brilliant Eurodance soundtrack that perfectly suits the vibrant, highly emotional, almost cinematic quality of the writing. To be fair, any play that uses Robyn is on the road to success.
Watch: Rotterdam runs at Theatre 503 until 21st November.
Photos: Piers Foley Photography