Writer: Bruce Robinson. Adapted by Ian Winterton
Director: Trevor MacFarlane
Reviewer: Brian Gorman
One of the biggest cult movies around gets an absolutely wonderful stage adaptation in a promenade performance at The Lass O’Gowrie pub. Writer/Director Bruce Robinson’s low budget 1986 film told the tale of two struggling alcohol and drug-fuelled actors who go on holiday ‘by mistake’ to the Lake district, and gave Richard E Grant the rôle of his life. Such an iconic part is something of a poisoned chalice for any actor, but Adam Grayson pulls it off brilliantly with a performance of great intelligence, pathos and wit. Philip Barwood partners him beautifully as the more understated and gentler ‘I’, and the chemistry between them is electric. Using the entire space of the pub, the audience were guided around by the enigmatic and charming ‘Presuming Ed’ (Gabriel Paul ) who wordlessly ushered everybody from one scene to another. David Slack gave us a wonderfully theatrical Uncle Monty, with a constant twinkle in his eye and an air of wistfulness as he reminisced endlessly about a colourful past involving a great variety of athletic young men. Eryl Lloyd Parry excelled as a crusty old poacher (complete with a real catfish down his trousers), a curmudgeonly cake shop proprietor, and a nasty bigoted drunk with a hatred of ‘perfumed ponces’. Ian Winterton adapts Robinson’s much-lauded screenplay with confidence; wisely choosing not to reinterpret classic scenes and dialogue too much. For fans of the film, every beloved character has their moment in the spotlight – the versatile Steve Cain brought the house down with his no-nonsense copper instructing a drunken Withnail to “get in the back of the van!”, a surly cafe cook delivering a soggy fried egg sandwich with the air of a man whose kitchen hygiene routine is probably close to non-existent, and a farmer recovering from the amorous attentions of his prize bull. Cain’s delivery and timing is excellent, with every character played with great subtlety for maximum comic effect. The female characters were all played by Annie Wallace, beginning with the dishevelled cafe customer biting into her fried egg sandwich after carefully surveying it with the cold pitiless eyes of a jungle cat. Her frosty, hyper suspicious farmer’s wife was another beautifully judged comic cameo, and the mousey Miss Blennerhassett was a hoot – treading on eggshells while serving tea and cake to Penrith’s visiting scum. As with the character of Withnail, Danny the drug dealer was another career-making film performance for an actor (Ralph Brown), and could easily have been parodied on stage by a less skilled performer than Dickie Patterson. Sauntering around like a sheepskin-coated apparition, Patterson dispensed his chemically enhanced wisdom like a bobble-hatted, sunglasses-wearing tranquilised meerkat. The sozzled, racist ex army innkeeper was played to perfection by Richard Salis, and after spending almost the entire play herding the audience around, Gabriel Paul’s disturbingly charismatic Presuming Ed eventually made an appearance towards the end. A special mention must go to Paul Phillips who supplied a dazzling variety of sound effects, expertly creating a superbly atmospheric tonal landscape (with a suitably 60s musical selection that complimented the onstage action perfectly). And last but not least we had a live chicken who almost managed to steal her one scene from literally under the noses of her co-stars.
A perfect ensemble cast created a feast of memorable characters, but it is Adam Grayson’s majestic and immortal Withnail that shone the brightest of all. His delivery of Hamlet’s soliloquy ‘What A Piece Of Work Is A Man’ was rousing, spine-tingling, and gut-wrenching. Director Trevor MacFarlane has accomplished something very special indeed, coaxing pitch perfect performances from every member of his cast, and delivering a production that deserves to be seen much further afield than the Manchester Fringe.
One cannot praise this production highly enough, proving that in the right hands a classic movie that has indelibly imprinted itself upon the psyches of millions of fanatical devotees can find new life on the stage. True 3D, in fact.