Jon Brittain’s acclaimed play about gender and sexuality, Rotterdam, has never been more significant or timely.
It arrives in Manchester following cancelled performances in Southampton where two members of the cast were attacked.
And Parkfield School in Birmingham continues to grab headlines because some parents want equality and diversity lessons stopped.
Alice (Rebecca Banatvala) and Fiona (Lucy Jane Parkinson) are a British couple living in Rotterdam. Alice is not out to her parents and keeps going back to an email she has written to them, checking it for typos and grammar. She is delaying the process because she is afraid how her folks will react and the fact that you become used to being in the closet.
Her partner Fiona is supportive, but cannot totally empathise as she came out an early age and has been comfortable in her own skin for a while – or has she?
The premise of Rotterdam is interesting. It presents the issue of gender identity from the perspective of a loved one as well as the person going through it. What do you do if your partner tells you they were born in the wrong body and they want to transition? How does the person going through it feel once they have said this? Just because they have said it, the process is not over, and their fears and insecurities may not disappear.
Brittain brings in a great deal of humour which is welcome on one level because for this piece to educate the audience it does so through laughter and stops it from becoming overly earnest.
But this also means that the play has the feel of an episode from an extended sit com.
Likewise, Fiona’s brother Josh (played with conviction by Paul Heath) feels like a character from a soap. He has dated Alice and hangs around to provide understanding and crack jokes. As a character, he feels more like a plot device.
Stella Taylor’s Lelani begins the play like a breath a fresh air. She is so free of angst that she works her magic on Alice. But, in act two she turns into something completely different and the tone feels slightly odd as a result.
The main problem with the play is that, despite its best intentions, it tells you about transgender transition as opposed to letting you see it with your own eyes. So at times the dialogue sounds like a Wikipedia page, giving you instructions and definitions as opposed to something real and tangible.
Rebecca Banatvala and Lucy Jane Parkinson are both excellent, conveying frustration at the huge divide that starts to form. Parkinson is totally believable as both Fiona at the beginning of the play and Adrian. She does more than ‘act’ like a man. She transforms before your very eyes, as someone would who was transitioning.
Banatvala has a great way of delivering caustic wit, and she does convey the grief and confusion of watching your partner ‘disappear.’
Donnacadh O’Briain’s direction reverts to ‘shouty’ at times. The discussions and conflict would feel more natural if they were quieter, and the poignancy would come through more naturally.
But the performances carry you through as they have a rawness to them so you feel for the two protagonists for different reasons.
The ITV drama Butterfly showed the effect of gender identity on a family over time and lived with you far longer. But Rotterdam is an interesting play which will provoke debate as you get the chance to feel as if you are walking in the character’s shoes.
Rotterdam is at The Opera House until 15th June.