Rotterdam theatre review: A poignant comedy about gender and sexuality ★★★★

Jon Brittain's Olivier-winning and groundbreaking play brings an important subject to a mainstream audience

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After its premiere at Theatre 503, a sellout run in New York and an Olivier award, Jon Brittain’s groundbreaking play gets a well-deserved West End run.

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On the brink of a new year, ex-pat Englishwoman Alice, working in Holland and living with her partner Fiona, goes through agonies as she composes an email to her parents in which she confesses her sexuality to them. As her finger refuses to press send and she runs the spellcheck one more time, Fiona reveals she wants to become a man and henceforth be known as Adrian.

What does this mean for an already confused Alice – on the brink of coming out, only to discover her partner is a man trapped in a female body? Does this mean she’s been straight all along? Throw into the mix the fact that Alice has become the romantic attraction of wild party girl Lelani, and the man she dumped when she discovered she was a lesbian who is still on the scene. Oh, what a tangled web they weave.

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Ellie Morris as Lelani and Alice McCarthy as Alice (all photographs by Hunter Canning)

As secrets are revealed and confusion reigns, it feels like a Restoration comedy transplanted to the 21st century, with a touch of farce and a dash of old-fashioned love story.

It all works superbly well thanks to Brittain’s sharply observed script, although it tips over into being a teeny bit po-faced in the second half. There’s also deft direction from Donnacadh O’Briain and cracking performances all round so you care about the characters from beginning to end.

As the doe-eyed and uptight Alice, Alice McCarthy gets some of the best one-liners, but still conveys her character’s confusion. Anna Martine Freeman expresses Fiona/Adrian’s inner turmoil without resorting to melodrama. And there are winning turns from Ellie Morris as the free-spirited Lelani and Ed Eales-White as the ex-boyfriend whose mouth is often ahead of his brain. 

Despite the emotional trials and tribulations, its depiction of the human spirit and our capacity for understanding is never less than optimistic; love will always find a way.

With its captivating mix of laugh-out-loud and achingly poignant moments, Rotterdam gives transgender people a voice in mainstream theatre and that can only lead to greater understanding.

Rotterdam is at the Arts Theatre until 15 July


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