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Rotterdam – Arts Theatre Until 15th July
Review by Sarah Tinsley
As I arrived for Rotterdam at the Arts Theatre, I was greeted by an encouraging sign outside the toilets – anyone, regardless of gender identity or expression, was free to use these facilities. We are beginning to understand that gender, sexuality and identity are far less rigid than has long been assumed.
Rotterdam is a breath of fresh air in a gender binary world, as well as a thoroughly entertaining show. Returning from New York, the show certainly lives up to its Olivier-winning status.
Alice is in Rotterdam. Still. After seven years, she still hasn’t quite managed to tell her parents that she’s gay. Her life is in limbo. Living with her outgoing partner Fiona and seeking advice from her friend Josh, Alice seems unable to take a step in any direction.
Until Fi decides to make her own revelation. She’s always felt like a man, born into a woman’s body, and wants to start living as a man in order to start the transition process. So begins a journey that neither of them are prepared for, that will challenge their relationship and make them re-evaluate everything. If Fiona is a man, does that make Alice straight? The arrival of an attractive Dutch co-worker at Alice’s office does little to help with her confusion.
From the outset, we are in a brilliantly kitsch setting. Each element could have been chosen directly from the Ikea catalogue. This design by Ellan Perry allows for a huge range of locations to emerge, with a few great moments with the entrances and exits, which become playful interactions with the set. The scene changes just about manage to remain an enjoyable part of the show.
The dialogue is superb. Jon Brittain’s writing is balanced between flowing conversation, punchy emotion and witty remarks. It’s what makes the show really shine. It also managed to put a range of reactions and views to transgender issues in the character’s mouths without making it seem like a ploy from the writer. And it’s genuinely, very funny. From one-liners to amusing plot twists, the writing and its delivery ensures the audience is laughing all the way through, even between moments of difficult emotion.
Of course, to pull off a great script you need great actors. From the supportive Josh played by Ed Eales-White (despite his white male privilege, you can’t help feeling a little sorry for him) to the exuberant Lelani played by Ellie Morris, each actor gives a nuanced portrayal of a character struggling to make sense of a difficult situation. Anna Martine is superb as Fiona, bringing a touching humanity and confusion to a complex identity, while Alice McCarthy (as Alice) is a straight-faced foil to the raucous explosions of emotion around her. She also treads the difficult path between being supportive and taking her own needs into account.
My final thoughts
Some criticism has been levelled at Rotterdam for being ‘trans-lite,’ in that it offers a slightly whitewashed view of the issues trans people face in modern society, or that it doesn’t delve deeply enough into the feelings of its characters. While this may be true, there’s no denying that having a mainstream play like this at prominent locations like The Arts Theatre is very important. I spend a lot of my time watching fringe theatre, where diverse and challenging content is the norm, but the audiences are far fewer. From bindings to hormones to self-identity, Rotterdam brings greater understanding to the real things trans people face in the world. With understanding comes greater acceptance, which is vital, especially considering the worryingly high suicide rates amongst trans men and women.
Rotterdam manages to be thought-provoking and funny, moving and enjoyable. I laughed, I cried, I got the song by The Beautiful South stuck in my head. Definitely worth the hype.