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Withnail & me

Robert Sheehan is perhaps one of Ireland’s best known actors.

He came to prominence with towering performances in RTE’s gangland drama Love/ Hate and Channel 4’s teen superhero hit Misfits.

More recently he has played Klaus in Netflix hit The Umbrella Academy.

His other credits include Hollywood productions like The Mortal Instruments, Peter Jackson’s Mortal Engines, Bad Samaritan which he co- starred in with David Tennant, and Season of the Witch which starred Nicolas Cage.

Robert is returning to the stage in an iconic role, playing the part of Withnail in Withnail & I, the new stage production of the cult classic.

Robert is joined by Adonis Siddique as Marwood for Birmingham Rep’s brand new adaptation of Bruce Robinson’s 1987 British tragi-comedy film.

Directed by the double Olivier Award-winning Artistic Director of Birmingham Rep, Sean Foley the piecewill have its premiere at Birmingham Repertory Theatre

The story finds the characters Withnail and the titular ‘I’ in September 1969.

They are two young unemployed actors – the flamboyant, boozy Withnail, and the shy, contemplative Marwood.

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They live in utter squalor in a flat in Camden Town, praying for a job… Their only visitor is their drug dealer, Danny; their only expeditions are to the local pubs; and their only friends each other…

Needing a break from the atrocious state of their acting careers, they hit upon the idea of a nice holiday – and Marwood proposes a trip to a cottage in the Lake District, owned by Withnail’s wealthy Uncle Monty.

Starring Richard E Grant and Paul McGann, the film is regarded as one of the finest British films ever made.

The new play is written and adapted for the stage by Bruce Robinson himself, the writer and director of the original film.

What was your initial reaction to being asked to play this role because it is iconic, isn’t it?

“It’s a real honour.

“I knew there would be huge anticipation around a film like this being adapted for the stage because this movie’s really part of the psyche of Britain somehow.

“It’s kind of bonkers and it’s about two- Well, maybe one lunatic failure and one lunatic failure’s mate kind of drifting around.

“I think the reason it’s so iconic in a way is because obviously the writing is absolutely cracking, but also, I would call it politics adjacent.

“There’s this sense that’s going on in the background that whatever magic was distilled out of the 60s is being co- opted by the new corporate imperative. The city is changing and it’s being taken over by property developers.

“Ultimately, there’s this sense of doom going on  which I think any era can relate to, like the one we’re in right now for example.

“In their story It’s 1969.

“There’s this sort of closing of the 60s, the great kind of ideal of peace and love.

“It’s all kind of crashing to a close a bit like their mad weekend in Wales, full of drink and drugs and having a laugh.

“It’s like the whole thing is an analogy for the 60s in one way.”

Robert isn’t so sure the 60s were all they were cracked up to be.

“I wonder sometimes is it nostalgia when we say, ‘It must have been great’.

“I think the 60s was a pretty hard time as well for a lot of people.

“I think the free love sort of idea of the 60s passed a lot of people by in the 60s including- Well, I think these guys are on the periphery of it.

“They have their priorities. They both want to become prestigious actors.

“One of them wants to work for it, Marwood and the other one thinks he deserves it without doing much work, Withnail.

“So yeah, that’s kind of where they find themselves really in the scene of the 60s.

“A bit like Bruce Robinson, it’s a very autobiographical film/ play.

“I think the friendship in it was sort of based on a true story about this kind of upper class guy who thinks he’s great.

“He is an entitled person and then Bruce, who’s a more down to earth kind of person, is probably the more talented person who just was highly entertained and, I think, highly intoxicated by this guy.

“They lived together.

“I think we’ve all had a friend at a certain stage of life where we realise we have to kind of let this person go.

“After several years of fun and kind of larks and mischief you realise, ‘This person might kill me if I keep hanging out with them’.

“I suspect that’s what happened in the real instance as well as the film.

“That this job at the end that ‘I’ gets, that Marwood gets couldn’t have come along at a better time because their friendship is dwindling.

“For the play we’re kind of tracking that throughout, the kind of moments of them becoming genuinely frustrated with each other.

“I suppose it’s like family, only it’s not because they’re not related.

“I think they inevitably drift apart.”

There’s a tragedy to that, isn’t there?

In the film we leave Richard E Grant in the rain and alone..

“He’s there in the rain. He’s Hamlet and he’s talking about how miserable he is basically at the end of the film and this play.”

Were you a fan of the original film?

“Yeah. Like everyone else in my era, I watched it when I was a teenager and then watched it probably two or three times since.

“It’s so textured and there’s just a lot going on in it that it’s easy to go back to every once in a while and rewatch it at a different stage of life because I think intuitively you sense you’ll get something else from it or you’ll hear a different line or something else will resonate with you because there’s a lot in it.

“Every single line is a kind of gag in itself.

“You’ve got to figure out, ‘What do we emphasise?’


“There’s so many parallels, there’s so many paradoxes that are playing that you discover while you’re devoting yourself to the script that it’s kind of hard to choose what to emphasise.

“Yes, I was a big fan of it from very young. And Richard E Grant in particular.

“Those are the kinds of performances I was drawn to as a young ‘un: The very sort of stimulating, very loud, very expressive performances which I’ve perhaps made a career out of a little bit myself. Doing characters not dissimilar to that kind of energy.”

How do you approach an iconic role that Richard E Grant is so well known for?

“I certainly don’t want to do a kind of carbon copy performance.

“What’s interesting about that?

“Nothing interesting at all.

“I think you’ve got to go in a room with your company and you’ve got to find what feels good and find things that make you all laugh and really just find it moment by moment and depend on your instinct and kind of let the film go a little bit.

“Everybody’s going to hear all the very familiar dialogue and interplay and the story that they know from the film.

“Also when the script is that good, you have to serve the script.

“In that way, you do end up in a similar arena as the actors who were serving the script before so you do end up bringing similar characteristics because you can’t suddenly make him sort of downbeat or naive or innocent.

“You can’t really do that because it doesn’t work for the material.

“You have to be this kind of self entitled, messy, quite verbose, very sort of in love with the sound of his own voice kind of person.

“But I think I’ll bring my own natural flavour to it.

“I tried for a while making him ‘West Brit’, do you know what I mean? I tried to make him a South Dubliner.”

That would have been interesting…

“I thought so.

“Then we kind of put it to the test and it sounded like neither one nor the other.

“Another vital element of him is that he is of a certain class.

“Obviously, Britain is a class obsessed place.

“Ireland is too but, I think, to a lesser degree historically.

“And so, you’ve got to give him that sort of poshness.

“But then when I was trying to do that Irish, it just wasn’t communicating as clearly to English people basically.

“You’ve got to go where the thing wants you to go.

“What it wants you to be as well.”

Enjoying rehearsals so far? “Yeah, it’s been great fun.

“When you’re gifted material as funny as this, as well worked as this, it’s going to make you laugh all day long.

“It will make you sh*t yourself laughing.

“It’s been lovely.”

Robert learned his trade on the stage but in a career dominated by film and TV, his stage work has been select pieces. He last acted in theatre with Beckett’s Endgame on the London stage.

Is it good to be back doing stage work?

“It’s definitely a very rich kind of joy, to do something on stage because you’ve got three, four, maybe five weeks lead up where every single day, you’re thinking about the character. You’re being the character for many hours per day rehearsal with your fellow actors and director and everything else.

“You’ve got all that going on and it’s literally like how many minutes per day you get to be the character, theatre versus film or telly.

“The truth is in theatre you are the character for way longer, obviously, than you would be if you’re making a television show because a TV show is more like a technician’s playground.

“So it makes you a better actor because you just spend longer time deeper in the flesh of whatever character you’re playing.

“It makes you a way better actor, makes you more in your body, less up in your head.

“I feel like I need to go back to theatre every once in a while because otherwise I kind of shrink as an actor if I get too conditioned to the culture of film and television.”

You have been blessed to do some great stage work. I just mentioned Beckett.

You also played the lead In Playboy of the Western World at the old Vic back in 2011.

“It’s like joining the circus with theatre because you just get in a room and play and f**k around, get it wrong for weeks on end.

“And by the end, you’re really bonded. You all have this shared objective and you’re kind of getting the tea, the biscuits, moving the props around.

“There’s more equanimity in theatre, there’s less of a hierarchical structure, less reason to be distant from one another.

“For that reason, I think it’s a far more meaningful experience sometimes.”

Do you still get recognised as Darren, your character in Love/ Hate?

“You’d be amazed.

“Because I live in Ireland, it’s the main thing I get.

“It’s still the main thing, the main one that gets, in a cheerful way, shouted at you in the street or in the pub.

“It’s funny because we were walking down the road, me and Sean McGinley, the lovely actor from Donegal.

“He was in Family and he was called Charlo.

“He played an abusive dad.

“I think it affected him because he was recognised as that character for a long time and he has mixed feelings about that and especially depending on how the person recognises.

“Sometimes they’re like, ‘Go on, Charlo’, giving him the ‘well done’ vibe.

“We were walking down the road and he got ‘Charlo’ and then I got, ‘Howya Darren?’

“He said, ‘It’s you now, you’re taking the baton. That’s gonna follow you for the rest of your life’.

“I realised quite proudly, ‘Yeah, it probably is’.

“It holds a very special place in the hearts of Irish people. How can you not be proud of that?”

That must have been a very special time as Love/ Hate and Misfits came along at a very similar time..

“Yeah, quite close together and then subsequently after that, I was doing them at the same time.

“I remember season one of Love/Hate and the other actors came in and they were like, ‘We watched it. We watched Misfits last night on telly. It was good’.

“Misfits came out on telly when we were doing season one of Love/Hate.

“And then seasons two of both shows I was basically doing one after the other.

“It was a busy old time.

“And then Ruth Negga, lovely Ruth Negga was in  Love/Hate and then she came into Misfits and then we did Playboy of the Western World together so we were basically just landing on the same jobs for a while.”

More recently we have seen you playing Klaus in The Umbrella Academy, a massive show.

“Yeah, he’s been bonkers. And they’re very good on Umbrella..”

“They gave me a very long leash to kind of f**k around, to play around and improvise.

“They were very good.

“Something as structured as a TV show and one as, I assume, expensive as that, they can kind of need everybody to sort of say what’s on the page all the time.

“But Umbrella wasn’t really like that, they were really welcoming of spontaneity up to a point.”


Robert was just a young child when he appeared in Aisling Walsh’s Song for a Raggy Boy starring Aidan Quinn.

Was it always going to be acting for you?

“When I was a kid, I really, really wanted to do acting.

“It was like operant conditioning that happened to me when I was a young fella.

“So it was like onstage, deliver the few gags that made everybody laugh. And at that point, just that level of approval, that reinforced stimulus was so powerful in my young little body that it kind of set me on a course which I re-examined when I was in my late 20s, ‘Am I doing this for approval and glory?’

“In other words, ‘Am I doing this for other people or am I doing this for myself?’

“And I had to kind of reevaluate my reasons for being an actor altogether.

“And I can happily say that today I take things on not to get good reviews. Yes, to make people laugh and to make people happy but that’s not the only priority.

“I think there’s a priority that pips that which is I want to make something good for its own sake, for my sense of satisfaction.

“I want to make something good because there’s really no other reason to go at something unless you’re going to work really, really hard at it and make it classy and make it like a magic trick.”

So after the success of big roles like Love/ Hate and acting in Hollywood films, you had to re-evaluate if you were doing it for the right reasons..

“I was thinking, ‘Why do I do this? What is the main driving factor behind all this stuff?’

“And I was still a little kid for a long time.

“I was still a little kid seeking popularity.

“But ultimately when you seek popularity, reviews, work, there’s a big glass ceiling on how much you can do because you can’t craft something while speculating about how this is gonna go in other people’s heads.

“To seek popularity is to ignore the voice within yourself telling you that it’s good or bad or whatever, I think, to a degree, so I had to rediscover art for it’s own sake as opposed to doing it to impress other people.

“I think if you’re one of the lucky souls who get to do a play you have to make all the choices because they’re the best choices in that sequence and not because whoever else are going to be expecting X.

“You’re not making choices based on that but because it feels right.

“That becomes the most important thing, I think.

“It’s all a conversation with yourself, art as much as a conversation with others.”

Withnail & I runs 3 – 25 May 2024 at Birmingham Rep.

For more information and tickets, click here.

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