Interview: Alice McCarthy, Rotterdam

The two years since Rotterdam‘s critically acclaimed debut run at Theatre 503 have been eventful, to say the least. Jon Brittain’s bittersweet comedy about gender and sexuality, directed by Donnacadh O’Briain, not only transferred to Trafalgar Studios and enjoyed a sell-out run in New York; it also won the 2017 Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre. And this month the fairy tale continues with a further London transfer, this time to the Arts Theatre, where the play will run from 21st June to 15th July.

Rotterdam is a warm, hilarious, appalling and devastating firecracker of a story, with a simple human love story at its heart,” explains Alice McCarthy, an original cast member returning once again to the role of Alice – who’s about to finally come out as a lesbian when her girlfriend announces she wants to start living as a man. As Fiona begins the transition to life as Adrian, Alice is left wondering if this means she’s now straight…

Photo credit: Piers Foley Photography

Alice is joined by Anna Martine Freeman and Ed Eales-White, who also reprise their roles in the play, along with newcomer Ellie Morris, taking over from Jessica Clark as Alice’s free-spirited colleague Lelani. “It’s very exciting, of course, to be able to sit with a character for two years,” says Alice. “Relationships change and deepen, and I am discovering new sides to Alice all the time. Reuniting with the team is always fantastic and means that these long relationships between our characters now make more sense, as we do actually know each other better! Also, Lelani is now played by the lovely Ellie Morris, which has meant new colours and an exciting opportunity to look at all those scenes in a fresh light.”

Jon Brittain wrote Rotterdam after a couple of his friends transitioned in the late 2000s, and he decided to address the absence of transgender stories in pop culture. Despite this, Alice believes what makes the play interesting is that it avoids didacticism: “It in no way seeks to comment on the whole trans-experience but simply tells the story of a group of specific individuals dealing with a unique set of problems. It’s certainly a queer love story, which is of course important, but it is still essentially just a love story. In this way it’s accessible to all and invites the audience to view Alice and Adrian as no different from themselves. I hope that audiences will leave moved, laughed out and feeling like they have got to know four individuals intimately. The best responses are also when we change people a bit!”

And what does she feel is the secret to the play’s success? “I think it’s because Jon has written such specifically human and well-rounded people. There’s an element of the play that allows the audience to become voyeurs, and so they leave feeling close to the characters and wanting to know what happens to them next. A few audience members have come straight up to me and said, ‘What happens to Alice?! We want to know- make a series!'”

Photo credit: Piers Foley Photography

Alice and the team are just back from their sell-out run at 59E59 Theaters in New York as part of the Brits Off-Broadway Festival, where the play’s reception was different but no less enthusiastic. “I think New York audiences are certainly more earnest,” says Alice. “There is an element of taking everything seriously. I think maybe UK audiences are more comfortable with a mix of irreverence and comedy in the tragic, whereas our U.S. audiences have seemed to enjoy the drama side of Rotterdam more. It’s certainly been fascinating to see how plays are so changeable dependent on the temperature of the audience and their expectations. We are lucky though, as our audience’s responses have been just as warm and ecstatic as back home.”

It’s not just audiences who can learn something from this play; Alice has also benefited personally from being a part of the Rotterdam story. “I’ve gained so, so much,” she reveals. “It’s my first lead role after drama school and so on a professional level it’s been my training ground and a huge learning curve. Also, it’s been such a privilege to learn about trans-issues, and for me more specifically, about the partners of transitioning people. I now feel equipped to enter the world as a well-informed trans-ally!”

Book now for Rotterdam at the Arts Theatre from 21st June-15th July.

Review: Rotterdam at Trafalgar Studios

Jon Brittain’s Rotterdam premiered at Theatre 503 in 2015 to critical acclaim, and now gets a well-deserved transfer to Trafalgar Studios. Directed by Donnacadh O’Briain, the play introduces us to Alice and Fiona, an English couple living in the Dutch port of Rotterdam. After seven years together, Alice is finally ready to come out to her parents back home, when Fiona announces that she identifies as a man, and wants to begin living as Adrian. Which leaves a shell-shocked Alice questioning whether he’s still the same person she fell in love with – and if she stays with him, does that mean she’s now straight?

Photo credit: Piers Foley
Photo credit: Piers Foley

It’s a fascinating premise and forces both characters and audience to consider the labels we place on ourselves and others. But far from being heavy-going, Rotterdam is a warm and surprisingly funny play – expect to laugh, a lot, often at unexpected moments. Take tissues too, though, because it’s not by any means always an easy ride, and there are some incredibly powerful scenes in Act 2, as the impact of Adrian’s decision begins to be felt by both partners and those around them. And in the intimate setting of Trafalgar Studios, with the audience seated on three sides of Ellan Parry’s set, these emotions feel even more intense than they did first time around. With the actors only inches away – I was sitting so close to Alice as the play began that if I’d wanted to I could have read the email she was nervously drafting to her parents – Rotterdam feels less like a play and more like we’ve stumbled into the couple’s flat to intrude on some very private moments.

The original cast of four transfer with the production. Ed Eales-White provides comic relief, but also a voice of reason, as Alice’s affable ex Josh. It’s impossible not to like Josh, whose support is constant and unconditional, no matter what it costs him. Jessica Clark’s plain-speaking free spirit Lelani is great fun and more than a little bonkers, but with a touching vulnerability we only get to see in the play’s dying moments (and even then her exit line still gets one of the biggest laughs of the night).

Photo credit: Piers Foley
Photo credit: Piers Foley

But the show’s most powerful performances come from Alice McCarthy and Anna Martine. As Alice, McCarthy captures both the humour of the repressed Brit struggling to process emotions and experiences way out of her comfort zone, and the devastation of a lover whose world’s been turned upside down by forces out of her control. Anna Martine plays two roles in one, and her transition from Fiona to Adrian is exquisitely handled; as Alice herself points out at one point, her partner changes just enough to become someone different, but not enough for her to forget the person she knew. It’s a tricky balance to find, but Martine nails it and in doing so, manages to ensure we care just as much about Adrian in Act 2 as we did about Fiona in Act 1.

Aside from one scene in the pub that starts to feel a bit like a lesson in transgender terminology, Brittain doesn’t try to preach, or to tell us who’s right or wrong. Both Alice and Adrian have faults, and both at times handle the situation disastrously – but that’s far more believable than the alternative, and the play is all the more powerful for its honesty, however uncomfortable that honesty may be to watch.

Rotterdam is great entertainment, but it’s far more than that, of course; it’s the launch pad for an important discussion about the fluidity of gender and sexuality, and the nature of relationships in general – not just with lovers, but with friends and family too. (It’s particularly interesting to consider how the story might have been different had the characters been in the UK instead of far from home.) Stunning performances of a fantastic script make this a must-see production.

Rotterdam is at Trafalgar Studios until 27th August.