Home Entertainment Withnail and I review: Endlessly quotable comedy of bad manners

Withnail and I review: Endlessly quotable comedy of bad manners

Bruce Robinson’s cult movie about two bibulous actors staggers onto the stage 37 years late.

Written in 1987 but set in 1969, it is an endlessly quotable comedy of bad manners reproduced surprisingly well in Sean Foley’s production. Running out of money and alcohol, the dissolute Withnail (Robert Sheehan) and his roommate Marwood aka ‘I’ (Adonis Siddique) decide to leave their squalid Camden flat and drive to The Lake District to stay in a remote country cottage owned by Withnail’s Uncle Monty (Malcolm Sinclair). Oblivious to Monty’s sexuality, Marwood is alarmed by the unexpected arrival of the ageing queen who has designs on him. That’s pretty much it for the plot.

But Robinson’s semi-autobiographical script is really about an era on the cusp of change, the Swinging Sixties had swung and gone and bohemian glamour was being displaced by sleaze, addiction and unemployment.

Above all, its greatest strengths are the characters and highly refined comic dialogue.

Withnail is a neo-Restoration dandy gone to seed, spitting epigrams like a low rent Oscar Wilde. Sheehan looks the part though he hasn’t quite mastered the entitled sneer that came naturally to Richard E. Grant and he needs to dial down the melodramatic diva gestures. Siddique is a good foil as the bewildered Marwood, narrating their misadventures to the audience like a befuddled Chorus. Sinclair repurposes Uncle Monty from the film’s grotesque, pathetic predator into a fastidious and camp character of a bygone era, a sort of Gielgud manqué.

The live rock band led by singer/comedian Sooz Kempner blasts out fragments of songs from groups of the era with a pleasing lack of restraint.

And hats off to designer Alice Power whose infinitely adaptable sets conjure flats, pubs and a tea room while allowing Akhila Krishnan’s video design to simulate streets and motorways as the two reprobates head off in Marwood’s battered car.

It would be impossible to emulate the movie in all its ragged finery but this is a pretty good attempt at conjuring the spirit of Robinson’s hilarious tale of failure, curdled optimism and the finest wines available to humanity.

The car, in particular, is a triumph. (Actually, it’s a Jaguar Mk II).


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