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Theatre in Review: Rotterdam (59E59)

Anna Martine Freeman, Alice McCarthy. Photo: Hunter Canning

Rotterdam begins with Alice, a young woman in her early thirties, seated at her laptop, worrying over the message she has written (and rewritten and re-rewritten) to her parents, announcing that she is (a) a lesbian and (b) in love with her partner, Fiona. (The ladies have a bet on whether Alice will really send the message. Fiona insists that their relationship must be obvious, but Alice insists, "They think we're flatmates and you're too opinionated to get a boyfriend.") In a little exchange that tells you plenty about their relationship, Alice asks Fiona to read the text, then withdraws the request, complaining that Fiona will totally rewrite it, as she did with another message earlier in the week. "I made a few notes in the margin. I was just trying to make it sound less dry," Fiona says, defensively. "It was a shipping contract," Alice replies, acidly.

Screwing her courage to the sticking place, Alice is ready to hit "send," when Fiona unexpectedly stops her; what follows is a tense, awkward back-and-forth that comes to a dead halt when Fiona announces, "I think I'm a man." Suddenly, Alice's coming-out trauma seems rather like small potatoes.

In less than ten minutes of stage time, the playwright, Jon Brittain, has made a thoroughly up-to-the-minute point: In today's world, homosexuality -- not so long ago the hot-button issue of the moment -- has become almost ho-hum; coming out of the closet is as likely to provoke yawns as cheers or jeers. The new frontier is gender identity, which has the potential to upset people all along the political spectrum. Certainly, Alice is blindsided by Fiona's news, which carries with it an air of finality: "Every time I open my mouth, it's not my voice, or when I look in the mirror, it's just not quite me," she says. "It's not that I'm trying to change. I don't want to become a man. I think...I know...I already am one."

Soon Fiona has become Adrian, taking hormones, her voice lowering as she gradually learns the social cues that help her to pass as male. (She already had the butch wardrobe.) Alice, her head spinning, appears to go along with the program but, really, she's watching events move much faster than she can digest, sitting on emotions she is too afraid to express. In a sense, both characters are living in a state of suspension: Not for nothing has Brittain set his play in Rotterdam, a city built for commerce, not putting down roots. It once provided Alice and Fiona -- British expats -- with a safe space in which to build their relationship while Alice worked out her sexual orientation issues far from home. Now, Adrian, excited to discover his new sense of self, is pushing for them to return to the UK, not least to complete his transition under the National Health. All this leaves Alice feeling increasingly paralyzed. Adding to her stress level is Lelani, a brassy, blonde, twenty-one-year-old work colleague who is possessed of an unnerving self-confidence -- she came out at the age of ten -- and who makes it clear she wants Alice for herself.

Adopting a style both deeply sympathetic and breezily amusing, Brittain follows Alice and Adrian as they struggle to find a new accommodation in the face of profound change. Under Donnacadh O'Briain's fast-paced direction, we seem to catch the characters on the fly, breathlessly bopping from one crisis and/or revelation to the next; it's a measure of his work, and Brittain's writing, that we become attached to both Alice and Adrian, even as it appears that there may not be a way forward for them. Without resorting to preaching or amateur sociology, the playwright raises complex, vexing questions about sexuality -- most notably when Adrian gets down on one knee to propose marriage and Alice, at long last, blurts out the truth -- that, at no small psychological cost, she fell in love with Fiona, romantically, sexually -- and she isn't really prepared to feel the same way about Adrian.

All four cast members are in sync with the script's sharp-elbowed wit as well as the deeper emotions underneath. Alice McCarthy captures Alice's discomfort and rising ambivalence, her sense that if she tells the truth she may permanently explode her relationship, combined with the nagging feeling that Fiona's transformation into Adrian may render their love affair null and void. Alice can give as good as she gets: Criticized by Fiona for running spell-check on that email one more time, she snaps, "I don't want it to open with 'Dear Mum and Dad I've got something very important to tell you. I'm a Lebanon." She also cuts a faintly ridiculous figure when, trying to keep up with Lelani's hard-partying ways, she turns up in a garish orange getup that a teenager might wear to a rave. Anna Martine Freeman makes Fiona's transition to Adrian thoroughly believable -- no more so than when, elated at being treated as male by a stranger for the first time, she fails to see how the news devastates Alice. Later, when her proposal of marriage is greeted by a terrible silence, her facial expression seamlessly slips from joy to dejection. Interestingly, the tougher and more masculine she becomes, the more vulnerable she appears.

Ed Eales-White provides mordant running commentary as Josh, who is connected to Alice and Adrian in ways I won't reveal, since they come as punch lines to certain scenes. He remains a fountain of good sense throughout; asked by Alice if he was surprised to hear Fiona's news, he replies. "It all adds up. Like the end of The Sixth Sense." Ellie Morris barges around impressively as Lelani, who intends to have her way with Alice or know the reason why -- until she overplays her hand, in a scene that lays bare their very different attitudes about love, sex, and identity.

The members of O'Briain's design team have collaborated to give Rotterdam a buoyant pop edge. Ellan Parry's set is dominated by an upstage wall covered with black-and-white photos of the Rotterdam skyline, layered with occasional bold splashes of color. A trio of doorways built into the wall open to reveal closet-sized spaces in boldly saturated blues and pinks (among other hues). Parry's costumes cannily track the changes in the characters -- as Adrian becomes more masculine, Alice's outfits become more frivolous under Lelani's influence. (Lelani's wild, spangled party-night getups are their own special source of mirth.) Richard Williamson's lighting and Keegan Curran's music and sound design -- including some ingenious scenic changes set to catchy snatches of Europop -- are also solid contributions.

"How can we ever know who we're attracted to?" So wonders Alice, who learns that, under the very special circumstances affecting her relationship, it may not be enough to say, I'll love you, no matter what. Credit Rotterdam, which took a well-deserved Olivier Award for outstanding achievement in an affiliate theatre, for treating its complex subject with sensitivity and wit; even as the lights fade on the final scene, chances are you'll still be rooting for Alice and Adrian to work things out. -- David Barbour

(1 June 2017)

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