Rotterdam by Jon Brittain

Stephen Farrier
Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Each issue of D&T we bring you a teachers' guide to a play for study with your students, written by a fellow teacher. This issue, Stephen Farrier introduces Jon Brittain's Rotterdam, and explores the impact of its LGBTQ+ themes

 Theatre 503's production of Rotterdam (2015)
Theatre 503's production of Rotterdam (2015)

Piers Foley

Rotterdam is a play that is specifically of its time and yet speaks to the issues of our current moment. At its heart it is a play about characters coming to terms with themselves and each other, and centres on identity. Often it presents its themes lightly, comedically and in theatrically interesting ways. In 2016 it won an Oliver award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre.

A play of/for the moment

Rotterdam starts at a moment of coming out: Alice is poised to email her parents saying that she is a lesbian when her partner Fiona comes out as a trans man. The play progresses from this dramatic point. But it is not a play that frames a trans man as the problem: rather, the moment of coming out in the play offers all the other characters an opportunity to consider their own privileges, identities, and positionalities.

Thinking about who we are, where we fit, and what our identity means in a contemporary context is a key discussion in our current culture, especially for young adults. Recent important social movements have attuned everyday discourse in learning environments to the challenges and pleasures of diversity, inclusion, and respect. Rotterdam's writing precedes much of this discussion and can be thought of an antecedent of the kinds of debate happening today. Rotterdam sits in a long tradition of realist playscripts depicting an individual's challenge as emblematic of a wider social discourse.

Form and movement

In terms of theatrical form, the play proceeds lightly, and often comedically. The dialogue is frequently fast-paced and witty, reminiscent of television comedy. This lightness of touch is often mentioned in reviews and is central to the play's wide production success. Theatres not known for LGBTQ+ audiences might see the play's direct engagement with LGBTQ+ issues and gender transition too difficult to sell to their regular audiences. Yet, across a number of types of venues, the reviews consistently note that this is a play that should be seen precisely because its serious subject matter is accessible through its tone and lightness of touch. It is approachable and funny.

Set and production

But the play does not skimp on the gravity of the issues, nor on the challenges it presents to production. The set, for instance, is multipurposed – one moment it is an apartment, the next a coffee shop. At one point the audience see characters in different bits of the city simultaneously. The use of concurrent scenes running at different times and locations present not only an interesting and juicy theatrical problem to wrestle, but the settings also feed the subtext of the play and emphasise its themes.


The themes in the play circulate in the domestic sphere; they are about the characters, their relationships and family. But they also extend to deeper and broader matters. Coming out, for instance, forms a fundamental part of the narrative – indeed the play's narrative fuel stems from this kind of moment. But coming out figures in the play for most of the characters as coming to know oneself more profoundly.

As a result, the play for the characters is about voyaging, to each other and to themselves – a process they often find disorientating as everything seems in flux. The play reinforces this sense of journeying, transition, orientation and change beyond individual identity, by rendering it thematically. Of course, the play is set in Rotterdam, and much is made of ‘going home’ and travelling. However, there is a concomitant sense of being between two places or at a border. Sometimes this border is geographical – there is one touching scene that takes place at a ferry terminal on the edge of the North Sea. Sometimes it is temporal – parts of the play are set at New Year, between one year and another.

And there are other edge moments, at the border of a shift in a relationship or at a moment a character comes to know themselves a bit better. As such the play – while being a domestic drama about family ties and coming to understand oneself – is full of negotiations, which extend into production considerations requiring interesting and creative responses.

To study and/or produce the play is to engage with a pressing contemporary challenge. For the uninitiated it can challenge and provoke, but is also approachable because of its familiar form and lightness (and speed!) of language. The play invites contemporary debates, raising questions around theatre in the broadest sense, asking: who gets to write, make and see narratives of minority groups? Who should be cast in the play? These kinds of questions breach the important discussion around how we should approach representation as powerful in plays – with a power that has palpable effects for those depicted.

To celebrate the publication of the new Methuen Drama Student Edition of Rotterdam, Jon Brittain spoke to award-winning theatre designer E.M Parry about taking the play from page to stage, which can be found online at