Said it before so let’s say it again and this time hope they put it on the posters: “Jon Brittain’s Rotterdam is the best ‘gay play’ since My Night With Reg” – a clever sharply-observed comedy riffing on gender fluidity with dry wit and crackling dialogue and which has now set new standards for the genre.

Anna Martine Freeman excels as right-on Fiona committed in a loving relationship to still-tentative Alice till she decides to transition as Adrian.  Honed from a trip to New York, bolstered by its well-deserved Olivier Award, Donnachadh O’Briain’s colourful, crisply-directed production is on fine, confident form at the Arts Theatre.

However you arrange the words ‘Lesbian transexual comedy, or ‘Transexual lesbian comedy’, they are vertiginously genre-defying and here breezily freed from the distant stereotype taint of Sister George. Author Jon Brittain must still be blessing the Germaine Greer controversy for making this piece which took five years from page to stage so topical when it debuted in 2015.

It has also taken expat Alice seven years in ports administration to make few friends and no decisions, and when she finally drafts the coming-out email to her parents, her hand is stayed from the ‘send’ button by the revelation that her loving, charming girlfriend feels incomplete without gender reassignment.

Brittain’s freedom to handle the resultant situations with humour, rage, pathos, tenderness and violence is what gives his script such power. Whether meticulously researched or brilliantly imagined, his sustained insight into the two women’s complex feelings and his depiction of their love is remarkable.

Donnacadh O’Briain’s pacy, stylish direction allows the whole cast to deliver tremendous performances: Anna Martine Freeman travels the bigger dramatic arc across two gender-differentiated acts with elegant conviction, and Alice McCarthy’s beautifully-observed hesitancies and sudden emotions pull you relentlessly on her journey of self-discovery.

Once his role in the drama is fully explained, you warm also to Edward Eales-White as the blokeish man who actually understands each of the women in different ways. Although her quirky character is more lightly sketched than the others, and as the crazy party-girl-about-town she must represent all the risks and excitements Alice has denied herself, Ellie Morris finds ways to make Leilani sympathetic and real.

I tried to tie the themes of the play to the lyrics of 90’s Hull popsters The Beautiful South‘s ‘Rotterdam (or anywhere)’ played at the end of the show – “and the women tug their hair / like they’re trying to prove it won’t fall out”.

There’s some anguished hair-tugging in the second act but it’s a further tribute to the writing that whilst you might feel you can see where the characters are going, you still want to follow every step of their way.

 

Until July 15.  Theatre is air-conditioned.

PS: to claim a tiny bit of credit for spotting Rotterdam so early in its journey and raving about it – here from 2015 is the moment @paulinlondon and I tailgated someone in to the lobby of a nearby block of flats to record this just-out-of-the-show AudioBoom