If you asked me to name my favourite book, I could do it quite easily. ‘The Rotters Club’ by Jonathan Coe is a coming of age novel set in 1970s Birmingham, complete with teenage crushes, ‘prog rock’, meals at the Bernie Inn, and the horror of the Birmingham Pub Bombings. The Rotters Club will make you laugh, make you cry and make you smile, and it has now been bought vividly to life by The Young Rep, the Birmingham Rep’s Youth Theatre.
The action starts in 1973 and follows the high school life of Ben Trotter (or Bent Rotter as he is more commonly referred to). Ben is a pupil at King William’s school for boys, a bright lad with a talent for writing and an initially unrequited crush on Cicely Boyd. Ben has an older sister, Lois, who is looking for love and gives the play its most tragic aspect, and close friends Doug and Phil, who share his love of music and writing. We follow the story through the 1970s, through the power cuts and industrial action, through the music of bands like Hatfield of the North and the coming of punk rock and through the racism and politics of the era.
In the hands of the young talented cast, the play works, taking the audience back to the difficult days of the 1970s. Charlie Mills is great as Ben Trotter, especially in the truly touching scenes with grieving sister Lois (the also excellent Alice McGowan who will break your heart at the denouement of act one, but no spoilers.) Another standout from a uniformly excellent cast is Harris Myers as the idiotic, but also deeply troubled Sean Harding. His mimicry of upper class accents makes the audience laugh out loud (and saw a spontaneous round of applause), but he can also do deep and moving, such as when he is talking about his parents separation. Anna Bradley is spirited and feisty as Claire Newman, the one girl who is accepted as an honorary ‘lad’ in her role in the school magazine. You really wish that Ben would look at Claire rather than mooning over the attractive but insipid Cicely.
There are elements of the play that are more problematic. Without the parents of the main characters appearing in the play, it is hard to care about the political arguments between Ben and Doug, or about the disappearance of Claire’s sister Miriam, whose lover, Doug’s shop steward father, you never actually get to see or meet. The play also feels slightly too long. But these are minor quibbles in what is a forceful piece of modern theatre that evokes feelings of nostalgia for what seemed like a more innocent age, but in truth was anything but.
THE Rotters Club
By Jonathan Coe and adapted by Richard Cameron