Rotterdam is a play about honesty and cowardice, and, for, every English person in the audience, these are pertinent themes.

RotterdamTransgenderism is all the rage these days, of course. Earlier this year, the Obama administration issued guidance allowing high school students to use bathrooms that suit their chosen gender identity. Caitlyn Jenner has been much feted, while veteran feminist Germaine Greer got into hot water for suggesting that transgender women aren’t really women.

Twenty five years or so ago, gay politics and AIDS exploded into popular consciousness with an even greater impact, its arrival marked by a cluster of plays in New York and London such as My Night with Reg, Falsettos and the epic Angels in America.

Rotterdam, which has opened at the Trafalgar Studios after a run last year at Theatre 503, might be the herald of a new generation of transgender plays. There is always a danger that ‘big issue’ plays will lecture their audiences, but that is far from the case in this production: Rotterdam is sharply written, very funny and faultlessly acted.

Alice (Alice McCarthy), a very English girl in her late 20s or early 30s, works in Rotterdam and lives with her English girlfriend Fiona (Anna Martine). Josh (Ed Eales-White), Fiona’s brother, also lives in Rotterdam. He used to date Alice, and moved to Rotterdam with her until Alice decided she liked his sister more.

The quartet is completed by Lelani (Jessica Clark), a free-spirited and alarmingly direct Dutch girl in her early 20s who works with Alice and has the hots for her.

RotterdamAlice still hasn’t told her parents she is gay. She has written the email but never sent it. This causes some friction between her and Fiona, but this issue is swallowed by the bombshell that Fiona wants to become Adrian. Or, as she puts it, “I don’t want to become a man; I know I already am one.”

What is a painful and troubling process for Adrian is painful and troubling for Alice as well, as she sees the woman she fell in love with disappear and reform in front of her eyes. Or does she? To what extent sexuality makes the person and whether differences to the norm can obscure an irreducible human essence is at the core of this play.

As she grapples with what she sees as the disappearance of her lover, Lelani offers the temptation of uninhibited carnality while well meaning Josh attempts to explain Alice to Adrian and Adrian to Alice. The play is as much about Alice’s journey as it is about Fiona’s journey to be Adrian. She hadn’t really got her head round being gay. She now has to get her head round her lover being a man not a woman. It is a role beautifully performed by Alice McCarthy, and through her the play becomes one that embraces much larger themes than transgender identity.

Alice is forever finding herself in situations not of her choosing and which she finds painful because she has failed to be honest to herself and consequently to every else around her. “I was just being polite,” she says constantly. It becomes her refrain. If there is an English vice, this surely is it.

RotterdamIt is hard to warm to Fiona/Adrian. She knows what she has to do, and is intent on doing it, but has little time to appreciate what it means for Alice or, indeed, anyone else she encounters. But this solipsism is just what you would be likely to encounter in a person who has looked into themselves and found it necessary to take radical action, however painful, physically and mentally, that will be.

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Josh is the moral centre of the play, offering sensitive and humane advice, but is still a bit of a puppy dog. He came to Rotterdam with his girlfriend, was dumped for his sister and is still, inexplicably, in Rotterdam seven years later. Even he finds it hard to work that one out. His good-natured pacifism is counterpointed by a nice line in well-meaning condescension: “the best thing you can do when you’ve had your heart broken is not let it get you down.”

Every scene involving Lelani, the excellent Jessica Clark, hums with the possibility of delicious danger and intoxicating sex. If Wilde had written a Dutch lesbian character, this would be it. She offers Alice all the illicit fruits her innermost being wants but she has never been brave enough to claim.

It is a very funny play. Jon Brittain has written a series of great one-liners and at times, set as it is for the most part in the girls’ apartment, it feels like a deviant, and funnier, Friends. This is a heavy topic for a play, yet the laughter is never far away and no time does the audience feel hectored or preached at.

The play is now well known to the cast and they have had time to burnish their comic timing to a fine polish. The scenes of dispute are also performed with laser precision and compelling intensity.

RotterdamIt is never quite clear why this play is in Rotterdam. It is a port town, so there are all those connotations of journeys and discovery. And then there’s Rotterdam, by The Beautiful South, which proclaims ‘This could be Rotterdam, or anywhere/Liverpool or Rome/’Cause Rotterdam is anywhere’. But it remains a bit of a mystery and it’s fine that it is.

Donnacadh O’Brian directs, and the cast moves the play along at a lively pace. Seamless scene changes are marked by bouncy pop changes and the action barely halts. It is a tiny stage at the Trafalgar Studios, but so is Theatre 503 and this play is aided by a claustrophobic space.

The comedy perhaps works better in this play than the discussion of sexual politics and gender identity. But the comedy works very well indeed, and the exploration of the meaning of gender and how much or little that constrains and shapes wider identity is far from trivial.

Moreover, it is a play about honesty and cowardice, and, for, every English person in the audience, these are pertinent themes.