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The first-ever stage version of Withnail & I premieres at Birmingham Rep this month. The original 1987 film quickly became cult and launched the screen career of Richard E Grant, who played Withnail. Now it’s Robert Sheehan who’s taking on the role of the flamboyant out-of-work actor. Here, he talks about the challenge of playing the part and explains why he thinks the film is so widely adored...

When Robert Sheehan was offered the part of the garrulous dipsomaniac Withnail in the new stage adaptation of the hit 1987 film Withnail And I, he jumped at the chance.

“It’s a feast of a role to play,” says the BAFTA-nominated actor. “It would have been a very difficult part to pass up because Withnail And I is just an incredibly well-written movie and play. 

“It’s such a rare piece because all the moves of the story come from these odd decisions and dynamics between the characters - and as a result of that, you have no idea how it’s going to turn out.” 

Frequently included in ‘best film ever’ lists, Withnail And I features two out-of-work actors - Withnail and Marwood - who take a holiday in the Lake District in a cottage owned by Withnail’s Uncle Monty, who then comes to visit - and mayhem ensues. 

Written by Bruce Robinson, who has adapted the script for the Birmingham Rep stage show, it is loosely based on his experiences as a young, unemployed actor. 

The film catapulted Richard E Grant’s Withnail, Paul McGann’s Marwood and Richard Griffiths’ Uncle Monty into cinematic history.

“Since as far back as I can remember,” says Robert, “I’ve been aware of the movie and its unique status as a movie that is much adored and much quoted by everyone, and the reverence that surrounds it. 

“It was very much one of those formative films, and since this job has come along, a lot of friends of mine, mainly male, have told me they got into acting because of this movie. I think it’s a movie that showcases some wonderful acting, and that’s why it lends itself so well to the stage.

“It’s very much pushing the focus onto the wonderful, dynamic performances going on and through the brilliantly bizarre and eccentric characters who make strange decisions, and those decisions become the movie. So it’s a very character-driven piece.”

Showing at Birmingham Rep this month, Withnail And I is a Rep production helmed by the theatre’s artistic director, Sean Foley. Alongside Robert, Adonis Siddique plays Marwood and Malcolm Sinclair is Uncle Monty. So what are Robert’s thoughts on stepping into Richard E Grant’s Withnail-sized boots?

“A lot of people have said to me it’s a lot of pressure - but why is it? It’s certainly pressure if you don’t trust in your own ability, but if you work hard and everyone else is working hard, then you’ll make something very interesting. 

“The play obviously has the meat of the film because it’s a very similar script, but I think it’s being told quite differently. The physical universe of the stage and the changing of the scenes and the reality of trying to blend one scene with the next one all kind of accumulates to create something quite different.”
For Robert, it is important to create his own Withnail.

“People are always going to bring a sense of the movie into the playhouse, but it’s our job to tell the story and find our own way to do that. There’s really no point in bringing the movie into the rehearsal room; you’ve got to step back from it and allow the intuitions in the room to take the story forward.”
Robert first trod the boards at the age of 12, playing Oliver in Oliver With A Twist at his school in Ireland.

As a teenager he appeared in Aisling Walsh’s 2003 film, Song For A Raggy Boy. 

He has since built up a successful career in a host of stage productions, including The Playboy Of The Western World at the Old Vic, Endgame at Dublin’s Gate Theatre and Trevor Nunn’s Richard III at the Rose Theatre. 

That’s alongside numerous television series, including playing his BAFTA-nominated Nathan Young in the sci-fi comedy series Misfits, Klaus Hargreeves in The Umbrella Academy and Darren Treacy in Love/Hate. Films have included Mortal Engines, Season Of The Witch and The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones.

Despite Robert clearly having had plenty of acting jobs over the past two decades, it has to be asked - what does it feel like to be playing an out-of-work actor?

“Well, we’ve all been there,” he laughs ruefully before pausing to think. “What is it like playing an out-of-work actor? I’m probably playing an out-of-work actor who is desperate not to be out of work, but at the same time there’s a huge hypocrisy going on with Withnail. 

“At one point, a job is floated to him, but he thinks the job is beneath him, so the audience suspects he doesn’t really want to be an actor. 

“He wants to be a failed actor; he wants to be a guy who can go around, attend parties and say things and essentially perform his own life, but actually I don’t think he can cope with the idea of getting up every morning and working hard and taking direction. Essentially he has completely the wrong attitude going into the world of acting.”

Robert believes the play taps into much within human nature.

“It says a lot about British personal identity and friendship. It demonstrates a friendship which is probably toxic. It’s not the healthiest friendship in the world, but it’s two people who allow for one another 100 per cent because Withnail has found in Marwood a friend who can tolerate him and enjoys him for all his flaws. 

“The show is an embellishment of life, but it does have something very truthful at its core - that real friendship allows for warts and all.”

And he hopes audiences enjoy this new way of seeing the classic story and its characters.

“I would love people to go away and think it was great; it was like re-living the film, but there were aspects that were completely different. I hope they have a good laugh, because when you get an entire audience laughing, you get the most wonderful feeling.

The rehearsal period has been hard work, but it’s worth saying I haven’t laughed this much in a long time. Kudos to Bruce Robinson’s writing - you could come and see this show two or three times and not consciously absorb all the hilarious, bonkers images that Bruce is throwing at you. So don’t just come see the show once - come and see it four or five times minimum.”

Withnail And I shows at The Rep, Birmingham from Friday 3 - Saturday 25 May