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Recreate an iconic Eighties film for the stage? It's a piece of cake

By Stephanie Bell

Published 10/09/2015

Bottoms up: Adam Turns as I and Xander Duffy as Withnail
Bottoms up: Adam Turns as I and Xander Duffy as Withnail
Iconic duo: Richard E Grant and Paul McGann in the original
Adam Turns as I and Xander Duffy as Withnail and director Ross Chambers
Eastern promise: Strand Arts Centre

Cult movie Withnail and I is being reinvented in a Belfast theatre tomorrow night, with struggling actors who double up as barmen in the starring roles.

Belfast will be treated to a unique piece of theatre and nostalgia this weekend when an ambitious stage adaptation of the classic cult movie Withnail and I plays in the Strand Arts Centre in east Belfast.

Stepping into the iconic roles, made famous in the Eighties movie by Richard E Grant and Paul McGann, are two local actors for whom the switch to character won't be the biggest stretch from reality to stage for them.

Barmen Adam Turns and Xander Duffy are struggling young actors who - like the two main characters they will be playing - know what it is like to be out of work in their profession.

The guys currently get by between parts by working as barmen in the city centre and have been putting in 18-hour days as they combine rehearsing for this weekend's shows with their usual jobs. Withnail and I is the story of two out of work actors in the Sixties who live in a squalid flat while waiting for their careers to take off.

They spend their days drifting between their flat, the dole office and the pub.

When they take a holiday to the country house of Withnail's flamboyantly gay Uncle Monty they find themselves in a rundown shack facing the tedium of country life. The movie has been described as "one of Britain's biggest cult films" and has many famous lines which continue to be quoted to this day.

The punishing schedule for the actors to bring the unique stage version to Belfast audiences has been a labour of love and both are determined to put their own stamp on the legendary characters Withnail and I.

Adam, who plays "I" and works full-time as a barman in the BlackBox while pursuing his career as an actor, says: "It is not too much of a leap to play an actor with no money and no job. I think it is really exciting to be putting such a famous film into the medium of theatre.

"I am a fan of the movie and I can't help feeling a bit of pressure taking on the role which everyone knows Paul McGann for. We are not trying to present a carbon copy of the film, it's more of a love letter to the movie. All the iconic things are in there, but because it is a stage production, it will be different and I think our director Ross has done a brilliant job of adapting it."

Xander Duffy, who is a full-time barman in The Sunflower Bar and plays Withnail, adds: "We've been rehearsing from nine-to-five and then going into work for six in the evening until one or two in the morning or later. It has been tough, but I am so excited about the role and the production. I just pick myself up and go in every day and put all my energy into it.

"I love the movie and every time I watch it, I get something new out of it. I have tried to make the role my own, as I don't want to be Richard E Grant, and I am really looking forward to it. "

Ironically, it is thanks to a former barman that Belfast audiences are going to be treated to a live recreation of the classic story, which has struck a chord with countless generations since it first hit the big screen. Ross Chambers, founder and director of theatre company, Kandu, also worked as a barman in the Grand Opera House before leaving to pursue a passion for acting.

He finally discovered his talent lay in directing, setting up Kandu with a couple of friends in 2013.

The company has set out to produce work which is "non-typical" of the local scene and, to date, has enjoyed success with stage productions of The 39 Steps and The Breakfast Club.

Ross says: "Kandu Theatre was created as a platform to help expand the CVs of myself and others interested in the struggling arts scene here. We're not involved for money - not yet anyway - we're just really keen and hungry for exposure and to get our names out there, while bringing exciting and fresh material to our city."

And he is confident that Withnail and I fits their remit perfectly. Interestingly, it was with the tips he earned while working behind the bar in the Grand Opera House that he first bought the DVD of Withnail and I.

"It was late at night after a shift at work and I was poking through Tesco's bargain bins looking for a movie.

"I found Withnail and I and knew it was a big film and I had never seen it. I think I paid £2 for the DVD," he says.

"I wasn't overly fond of it the first time, then I watched it again a couple of years ago and thought this is really good and would make a good stage play.

"This time last year I developed the script and then last November I put out a call for auditions.

"I realised there were major boots to be filled with Richard E Grant and Paul McGann, and I got about 60 emails in response to the call and whittled it down to about eight people I felt could fit the bill."

Ross was thrilled with his two lead men who he feels are ideal for the roles.

"Adam was so perfect at his audition that another guy waiting to audition actually left saying there was no point in him even trying after he saw how well Adam was in the role," says Ross.

"Both actors have made the parts their own.

"It is probably difficult for fans to imagine anyone else other than Richard E Grant playing Withnail and that is a lot of weight on Xander's shoulders, but he is a natural and audiences are going to be very surprised."

Both actors are purists when it comes to their profession, preferring the opportunity to challenge themselves in their craft rather than seek fame or fortune as actors.

Adam (24), who is originally from England, came to Northern Ireland in 2009 to study drama at Queen's University, Belfast. When he graduated in 2013 he returned to England where he worked for a year as a director before coming back to Belfast. He has just started a course for 18 to 25-year-olds training in the Lyric Drama Studio, and his performances to date include everything from Shakespeare to stand-up comedy. He says he can't wait to get on stage: "We are not trying to imitate the film - as that can't be done in this medium. It is more like a tip of the hat to the film."

Twenty-seven-year-old Xander, from Belfast, spent six years working in New York as an actor, returning home three years ago. He has appeared in a number of local productions, including Dial M for Murder at the Grand Opera House.

He says: "It is not an easy life being an actor. Most of the work is in London. I'm delighted to be doing Withnail. It's challenging because it is such a huge role, but it will be a lot of fun which is what you live for as an actor. I want to tackle and do justice to it."

In keeping with the strong alcoholic theme of Withnail and I, director Ross has introduced a drinking game to engage the audience in the show - which, of course, will be done responsibly. Unusually, audience members are invited to bring their own wine and beer so that they can take part and every ticket holder will get a free glass of wine and a piece of cake as they enter the auditorium.

It is a twist designed to add to the fun of the evening and Ross has no fears of his audience ending up rolling drunk in the aisles.

"There is a lot of alcohol in the film and since the show is about booze, we thought it would be a good idea if people were able to bring it to the event," he says.

"There is a famous and often quoted line in the film when the two boys drunkenly go into a cake shop and ask for 'the finest wine available to humanity here and now' which is why we thought about giving the audience a treat with a free cake and wine.

"I'm actually a teetotaller. The drinking game is just a bit of fun and people won't be getting riotously drunk.

"We are very conscious of making it a respectable evening and we want people to enjoy themselves."

Shows are being held tomorrow and Saturday at the Strand Arts Centre (8pm). Tickets cost £12.50 from the box office, tel 028 9065 5830 or online at www.strandartscentre.com

Belfast Telegraph

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