PHILOSOPHICAL: Actors Jay Piper and Michael Byrne engage in long pub sessions in the British comedy Withnail And I. Picture: Max Mason-HubersTHE cult classic British film comedy Withnail and I looks at two young men coming to terms with life’s realities. So it’s not surprising that a group of Newcastle people in the same age group saw it as an appropriate first work for their new theatre company.
The members of the group, Pencil Case Productions, have adapted writer Bruce Robinson’s screenplay for the stage.
It will begin a four-performance season at Newcastle’s intimate Royal Exchange Theatre on Saturday.
Director Libby DeVenny, who appeared as a teenager in Tantrum Theatre productions, said Withnail and I appealed to the group because of the quality of the writing.
“The hilarious dialogue and characters entertain watchers in what initially feels like a light and somewhat flippant plot,” she said.
“But it deals with profoundly enduring themes, including the dynamics of friendship, the decay of youth, the loss of ambition and the end of an era.”
Pencil Case Productions isn’t alone in seeing Withnail and I as the basis of an engaging stage work. There have been numerous adaptations, including one that played to packed houses last December in a hotel called the Old Timers Bar near the University of Essex in Britain.
Robinson’s complete screenplay, which was based on his early life as an actor, was published just after the film’s release in 1987 and incorporates incidents that were cut from the film.
In their adaptation, the Pencil Case team have included lines and incidents that didn’t make the final cut, including a comic duel between the two title characters.
Scenes and characters that wouldn’t work in a theatre setting have also been cut.
Pencil Case Productions was formed late last year by Michael Byrne, Alp Akbas and Libby DeVenny and targets theatregoers aged from youth to middle age.
Their co-operative will program gritty comedic dramas that explore and reflect people’s aspirations, obsessions, disappointments, mistakes and successes.
The trio also want to offer opportunities for people with interests in writing, theatre and design to gain experience.
Ultimately, they hope to focus on works set in Newcastle and written and performed by Novocastrians.
The company’s name, Pencil Case Productions, incorporates the team’s hope that eventually much of the work will be locally written.
Bruce Robinson based Withnail and I on his experiences as a young actor seeking work in London in 1969.
He’s the “I” of the title, a character whose surname, Marwood, appears in the script’s commentary on the characters’ movements, but is only mentioned once in the dialogue.
Marwood succeeds in getting a good stage role, but his friend and flatmate Withnail finds success to be elusive.
The story has the pair becoming unhappy about their life in a gloomy and dirty flat in London’s Camden Town, with long pub sessions filling their spare time.
They talk Withnail’s uncle, Monty, into letting them have the key of his Yorkshire country house and head there for what they hope will be a relaxing holiday.
Things don’t go that way, of course.
The cast includes Michael Byrne as Withnail, Jay Piper as I, Simon Cattell as Danny, a young drug dealer who takes over their Camden Town flat while the pair are away, Libby DeVenny as Withnail’s effusively gay Uncle Monty, and Joe Lappin and Gus Milan in roles including a poacher, farmer, bartender, teahouse proprietor and policemen.
The show incorporates a narrator, played by Aaron Silver, who voices some of the comments about the characters’ behaviour that Robinson included in the directions in his screenplay.
Michael Byrne, who won a CONDA last year for his sensitive portrayal of a very troubled husband and father in Newcastle Theatre Company’s When the Rain Stops Falling, said the actors realised while rehearsing Withnail and I that at one stage in their lives they had lived in much the same way as Withnail and Marwood.
“It’s a story about moving into adulthood and making the most of your potential,” he said.
Libby DeVenny noted that Withnail is aware of the expectations placed on him by his experiences in attending a good school and acting college and feels betrayed by society as the story develops.
Withnail and I has made the top-50 British films list in several polls conducted by film organisations and magazines in the past decade.
Margaret Pomeranz, one of the reviewers on the ABC’s At The Movies, noted recently that it was the first film she gave a full five-star rating in her career as a film critic.