Lloyd Evans Lloyd Evans

Headed for the canon: Withnail and I, at the Birmingham Rep, reviewed

Plus: an affable new satire at Theatre Royal Windsor

The balance between Adonis Siddique’s Marwood and Robert Sheehan’s Withnail is richer than in the film. Credit: Manuel Harlan

After nearly 40 years, Withnail has arrived on stage. Sean Foley directs Bruce Robinson’s adaptation, which starts with a live rock-band thumping out a few 1960s hits. The musicians take cameo roles as maids and coppers. The show needs a larger cast especially for the tea-room scene – ‘We want the finest wines available to humanity’ – which calls for a big crowd of crumbling old crocks. Never mind. The production would have thrilled diehard fans. As for newcomers, they would probably have been better to start with the film.

This production of Withnail would have thrilled diehard fans – newcomers less so

Robert Sheehan delivers a glitzy, karaoke version of Withnail which is all surface and very little inner torment. And that fits well with Adonis Siddique’s melancholy, pent-up Marwood who binds together the emotional twine on which the piece hangs. The balance between them is richer than in the film, where Paul McGann’s Marwood seems like an empty outline. Malcolm Sinclair lacks the menacing bulk of Richard Griffiths’s Uncle Monty and omits to wear make-up during the seduction scene. Rather than a queasy mound of flesh, he imagines Monty as an athletic, dandyish sorcerer. Kenneth Williams might have played it this way.

Alice Power’s ingenious multi-layered set moves effortlessly from the hovel in Camden to Uncle Monty’s townhouse via the Irish pub full of homophobic thugs. She plonks in a red phone box and adds a vintage sky-blue Jag – with one lamp blown out – that trundles on and off stage. These fixtures are easy to recreate, but some of the modifications don’t come off.

Withnail delivers his false urine sample beside the motorway rather than in a police station. It’s cumbersome and not hilarious. The country walks have been curtailed or relocated indoors. The scene with the charging bull becomes a duel between the principals who re-enact the Hamlet/Laertes sword fight with false sabres. This is a new scene and it looks terrific. It’s funny as well. (If anyone wants more of Withnail, they should read Robinson’s screenplay whose stage directions are as good as the dialogue.)

The strangest moment is the closing soliloquy spoken to the wolves at London Zoo, which seems weightless and underpowered. But the journey has only just started with this version, which may become part of the permanent repertoire along with Abigail’s Party and Educating Rita. The only drawback is the absence of decent roles for women. An all-female production can’t be far off.

Michael McManus’s affable new satire, Party Games!, resembles a lookalike contest. The year is 2026 and a general election has just wiped out both the Tories and the Labour party. Into the vacuum rushes a new centre-right grouping led by a bumptious, gaffe-prone clown, John Waggner, who likes to quote Latin and has a knack for populist rhetoric. Who could that be?

His glamorous young wife, Anne, strides around Downing Street showing off her designer gear while disclaiming any similarity to ‘Carrie Antoinette’. The new PM’s deputy is a combative northerner who likes to swing her fists. A female John Prescott, maybe. Among the PM’s advisers is a scruffy maverick from Northumberland, Seth Dickens, who wants to privatise the NHS, scrap the House of Lords and liberate all schools from state control. He uses a robot that collects private data about civil servants which is supposed to be a secret, even though it sits on a desk for all to see. Dickens, played by Ryan Early, dances on the spot during political discussions like a DJ at a rave which suggests that he doesn’t have enough to do on stage. He’s not the only actor trying to amplify his role with bits of business.

The story becomes a little unwieldly as the UK lurches from crisis to crisis. Power cuts interrupt the electricity supply while a volcanic ash-cloud threatens to ground all flights. Meanwhile, SNP plotters are making a grab for power as widespread rioting breaks out following a car-crash involving King Charles’s limousine, which has run into a pedestrian. A plan to reform the constitutional position of the monarchy coincides with a move to realign Britain with the single market, and so on and so forth.

The chief whip, wearing a Michael Fabricant wig, wanders around the place carrying a poisonous tarantula that’s likely to bite someone. Eventually it does. As the victim falls, the plot takes off. The show’s most attractive feature is its focus on wordplay. The PM believes that ‘nuclear’ is pronounced ‘unclear’ and that ‘log-sticks’ means the same as ‘logistics’. He suffers from the delusion that ‘FTSE’ refers to a form of toe-to-toe flirtation beneath the dinner-table.

There are many other enjoyable details squirrelled away. Waggner once served as an arts minister but when he told the tabloids he liked opera he became a hate figure. It’s clear that the writer has more interest in the psychological nuances of his subjects than he can display in this farcical show. A play with more broth and less froth might work better.