Back in May 1999, the KOMEDIA Theatre, Brighton, saw the first ever licensed production of Withnail and I for the stage. The Withnail and I Multimedia Archive spoke to writer/producer/director Chris Beaumont just a few weeks before opening night.
“It had always been a favourite of mine,” says Chris, “It but didn’t become anything more until a couple of friends from the Brighton Fringe Festival, Sam and Kath, suggested it would make a great stage play. I thought about it and started making enquiries.”
Surely the license was a pain to get hold of?
“Surprisingly it wasn’t hard at all. I contacted Bruce via his publishers, Bloomsbury Publishing and they passed on my details including past track record, to him. I think I must have caught him on a good day and he said yes – as long as I made a sizeable donation to the Save the Children fund. I couldn’t believe my luck!
“I’ve been involved in the transference of several shows from one medium to another,” Chris smiles “and as long as they’re handled sensitively they usually work. You must never forget what the original was about and why it was so successful (if indeed it was). Many pieces will transfer very well.
“Back in 1989 I was involved in a stage show about Doctor Who.”
Chris is, of course, talking about The Ultimate Adventure, a hugely sucessful play written by Terrance Dicks. It was the third time the series had been transferred to stage and attracted enough major publicity for Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan to consider playing majors parts in a planned Austrailian tour.
“Jon Pertwee and Colin Baker played the role (Colin taking over from Jon half way through the tour – a ‘regeneration’ in fact!) People loved it. The fact that you could see the set moving occassionally made it all the more authentic. And yes, I was that ‘sulky’ Dalek!
“Very often you can bring a whole new lease of life to a piece by introducing it to a different arena. That’s not to say that Withnail needs a new lease of life, but I am hoping to bring it to another, partly new, audience. Theatre is very ‘immediate’ and is a very particular ‘first-hand’ kind of experience for the audience.”
Many fans, I say, strongly believe that no-one could play Withnail and Marwood like Grant and McGann. Was this a worry?
“Yes. Of course it was. No-one could ever try to reproduce those performances. They are classic. But other actors can bring something special of their own to those characters. The way the screenplay/playscript is written determines the way the characters are portrayed. You can’t help but see and hear elements of Richard and Paul in the words ‘as writ’, but I’m certainly not casting actors who are their ‘clones’, as it were.”
So who is starring in the piece?
“I am,” laughs Chris, “All the parts… no, not really! I am currently waiting for a few people to put their names on the dotted line, as it were. I shouldn’t say too much until then. We did actually lose our biggest name last week. Christopher Biggins was lined up to play ‘Uncle Monty’. he would have been brilliant. He’s actually a very good actor and was seriously interested in playing the part. But he’s opted for a six month tour on his ‘usual rate’ and I couldn’t possible hope to match that. But I can say that the cast will be made up of top notch pro’s. Several of them from Brighton.”
It is with joy, that I ask Chris about the ‘fencing’ scene, one of many scenes in the script that were cut from the movie, where Marwood thrashes Withnail in a sword fight.
“Yes, indeed I have included that scene.” grins Chris, “Brilliant. And that in itself explains a lot about the reasons why the fans love it so. The words. We all know the script. Many, line by line. I have to admit, I have a sort of actors dread that people will be shouting the lines along with the cast – a bit like Rocky Horror! Who knows what will happen… I’m sure we won’t mind huge peals of laughter or even rounds of applause after certain lines and scenes. Let’s play it by ear, eh? That’s part of the excitement of the whole project.”
Of course the music was a very important part of the feel of the movie. Will it be included for stage?
“Yeah, lots of loud Hendrix! Most of it happens in scene changes or as incidental music. I’m getting some new versions of things written and recorded as well. A Whiter Shade of Pale done on an eerie cello, for instance, and possibly some moody piano as well.”
The mention of Hendrix strikes images in my head of Withnail bellowing “Scrubbers!” and swigging whisky whilst speeding up the motorway to Penrith. Now that’s a point.. the car. How can you do the scenes to/from Penrith?
A wry smile. “Well… they’re there… you’ll have to wait and see…”
I sense I am reaching the limit of the information I can drag from Chris, as he becomes increasingly enigmatic.
“The show is running for two weeks from May 23rd to June 4th (except May 29th) at the KOMEDIA Theatre in Gardner St, Brighton. Shows start at 7.30pm. It is featuring as part of the Brighton International Festival and is the KOMEDIA’s main theatre event of the festival. There will also be a lunchtime discussion session on Thursday 25th at 1pm in the KOMEDIA cabaret bar. It’s FREE and the bar will be open! I’m keeping fingers crossed on getting at least one special guest.”
Before we part company, Chris mentions a rather special message he recieved recently.
“I had an Email from Richard E. Grant the other day. He said that sadly he wouldn’t be able to make it as he will be off filming in Europe at the time, but he sent all his best wishes and hopes it goes well.”