“A gloriously and unapologetically queer production”

BY LUCY KNIGHT. IMAGE HELEN MAYBANKS.

“You want to become a man?”

“No Alice, I just want to stop trying to be a woman.”

Such a poignant portrayal of gender dysphoria is a rarity on stage. It is easy to tell why the original 2015 production of Rotterdam attracted attention.

With a new cast, the 2019 UK tour production retains a script that is both disarmingly heartfelt and downright hilarious, complete with queer culture references to “hasbians” and Jodie Foster.

While the play does draw on stereotypical elements, the story itself is not a “traditional” narrative of a victimised transgender character.

Yes, Rotterdam explores the difficulties of coming out and living as a transgender person – something underrepresented in theatre – but it also explores the identity struggle of Alice, a character who believed herself to be a lesbian until her partner told her that he identified as male. 

The complexity of the story is an asset, yet sometimes it does feel a little far-fetched to be plausible: expats Adrian (then Fiona) and Alice got together when Alice was with Fiona’s brother Josh (who still lives in Rotterdam despite only having moved there because of Alice) and is now everyone’s best friend and all-round comedy sidekick. 

Writer Jon Brittain just about gets away with this slight absurdity, however, as his characters are utterly believable.

Bethan Cullinane and Lucy Jane Parkinson. Courtesy of Helen Maybanks.

I was brought to tears – of both the happy and sad kind – by the striped-welly-wearing Alice (Bethan Cullinane), who “had a hash brownie at a party once, but it was an accident so [she] spat it out.”

She takes solace from her confusion with “wild child” Lelani, a young party-obsessed Dutch girl, who impressed me with both her comic timing and her metallic leggings.

Audience favourite Josh, Adrian’s L-word watching brother, was played by Elijah W Harris, a transgender man. The choice to cast him in a cisgender male role seemed to me a delightful act of queer resistance against a trend of cisgender actors playing transgender characters – for surely it is the actor’s identified gender that should match the gender of the casting, not their genitals. 

However, the standout performance came, predictably perhaps, from non-binary actor Lucy Jane Parkinson, whose ability to convey an affecting representation of gender dysphoria has previously been evidenced in their one-woman show, Joan. 

Despite some line stumbles, the four actors had an electric energy throughout, expertly weaving through each other in a pink and blue box-like set, presumably meant to represent the entrapment of not being out.  

Further “symbols” were used effectively, such as visible costume changes, reflecting the performativity of gender and the transience of expatriate life, which was presented as a vehicle for change.

Rather unfairly, perhaps, the city of Rotterdam got a pretty raw deal, as a metaphor for “the closet.”

That said, Rotterdam is a gloriously and unapologetically queer production, complete with a queer cast members, and Christine And The Queens blasting out during scene transitions.

Unsurprisingly, then, it does a queer story justice.

@raucousguffaw

Want more? Visit rotterdamtheplay.com🎭

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