I was fortunate enough to secure a seat for the latest Theatre with Teeth production of Withnail and I, the cult classic black comedy about two failed actors struggling through life in 1969 with the aid of alcohol, cigarettes and intellectual pretentions.
Admittedly, the seat was rather an uncomfortable one, as I gate-crashed the dress rehearsal in a Queens lecture theatre, with rather harsh lighting and slightly improvised props. However, the stripped-back nature of the production just revealed the talent of the company; it’s undeniably quite a challenge to appear threatening even when brandishing an umbrella rather than a gun, but they managed it.
Director Aidan Cheng summarised the synopsis with ‘the three B’s- attempted buggery, butchery and booze.’ Jake Francis portrayed Withnail, an egotistical alcoholic with a determination to remain hedonistic forever, while Marwood, played by Daniel Heathcote, represented the more realistic half of the duo, despite displaying an almost equal capacity for constant inebriation.
The attention to detail, the elaborate insults and sarcastic descriptions within the script are iconic, and the cast embraced the sardonic precision of the characters with comedic skill. Some favourite moments included the careful removal of one rubber glove using the other, Withnail’s disgust at ‘turning 30 in a month and I’ve got a sole flapping from my shoe’, and the description of the landlord’s complexion as ‘the colour of the inside of a teapot’.
The pair exchange their filthy rodent-infested flat in Camden for a short break in the derelict hovel belonging to Withnail’s flamboyant uncle Monty, in the sodden marshlands of Cumbria. There were uncomfortable similarities between the life of drunken unemployment and that of the student, mostly with Withnail’s ready suggestion of more alcohol as ‘the only solution to this cold’. The juxtaposition of the urban with the rural was also a constant source of entertainment, as Withnail attempted to communicate with the local proprietor of the bar with the air of someone in desperate need of a translator.
Their holiday, consisting primarily of drinking, unprovoked chicken slaughter and picking fights with locals, is interrupted by the surprise appearance of Monty, played by Calum Wragg-Smith, who stole the show with his exuberantly gay persona and fascination with phallic vegetables; ‘I find the firm young carrot more fascinating than the geranium’. In between discussing politics: ‘We’ve been shat on by Labour and shovelled up by the Tories’ and fussily tying and retying the strings of his pastel cupcake apron, Monty reveals an obsession with Marwood. This attraction begins with Marwood’s noticeable discomfort at noticing Monty’s hand creeping up this thigh, and reaches attempted sexual assault when Monty bursts into his room during the night and tells him that he ‘must have him’. Even ‘attempted buggery’ as Monty diplomatically phrases it, caused amusement, due primarily to Marwood’s expression and Monty’s attire, namely an apron resembling a Victorian bathing costume over a bare chest.
The ensemble cast was completed by Tom Milton representing ‘13 million Londoners’, the most memorable being the elderly owner of a teashop that Marwood and Withnail drunkenly terrorise, and James Bush playing Danny, a drug dealer. Danny, with his Russell Brand-esque linguistic flair, rolling eyes and cockney accent, provided the majority of the audience participation, which despite being occasionally overdone, was nonetheless entertaining.
The final scene was one of my favourite moments, as Marwood realises his need to grow up and extricate himself from the environment which Withnail represents, and leaves to start a new acting job. Withnail is left on the verge of existential breakdown, which Jake depicted with touching poignancy and emotion. His final speech from Hamlet, ‘I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth’, evokes the sobering end of the play, the friendship and the decade.
The cast worked from the script, adapted by Natasha Mann, but incorporated quite a lot of improvisation. The aim had been to stay true to the essence of the piece, while realising the importance of making it their own, a goal which I thought was achieved skilfully.
by Helen Carrington
The production will run on 2 December, 3 December and 4 December at 7.30 at Old Timer’s bar.