Motorphilia. That, apparently, is the term for an obsessive love of cars. And they don’t come much more motorphilic than Calvin, the Irish protagonist of James Ley’s new three-handed, Edinburgh-set comedy Wilf, which is turning the air blue in the Traverse Theatre’s main auditorium until Christmas Eve. Christmas Trees might crowd the stage, but a family-friendly pantomime this is not: Calvin, you see, is a motorhead – and not a motorhead in the Jeremy Clarkson sense, but a motorhead in the sense that he would gladly give his motor head – and go a lot further than that with it, too.
Hitherto, Ley was best known for Love Song To Lavender Menace, his 2017 paean the LGBT Bookshop that existed in Edinburgh for several years in the 1980s, which is currently being developed into a film. If that play introduced Ley as a soulful and sensitive scribe of life as a gay man in the Scottish capital, then Wilf reveals him as a filthily funny one, as well – and as one of Scotland’s most exciting, early-career writers.
We meet Calvin – played with relentless ribaldry by Michael Dylan – just as he passes his driving test on the twelfth attempt after 104 lessons and, thrilled with his newfound autonomy, decides to sort his life out. Things do not go according to plan. His break-up with his abusive boyfriend is messy. His absent mum won’t reply to his tweets. The tsunami of anonymous sex he throws himself into is unfulfilling. And he discovers that, beyond his beleaguered driving instructor Thelma, he only has one real friend – and it’s Wilf, his second-hand VW Polo.
All of this is related breathlessly over 90 minutes, sometimes as dialogue between Calvin and the other characters he meets – all played by Irene Allan and Neil John Gibson – but mostly as a monologue. In a hugely entertaining performance, Dylan darts and dives around the stage to a soundtrack of 1980s power ballads, presenting Calvin’s break-up breakdown in a cocktail of smut, sadness, and – increasingly – sexual fantasies about his car.
It is a painfully funny portrait of a gay man in a spiral of self-destruction, who finds it easier to love his VW than to love himself. By the time Calvin goes on a road-trip north and records a viral video of himself getting extremely intimate with Wilf’s exhaust – “on the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond, to bonnie Bonnie Tyler” – it is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry. Calvin and his car’s loch-side post-coital reverie, related by Dylan in a euphoric cascade of unicorns and rainbows, is simultaneously absurdly amusing and really quite sad.
Gareth Nicholls’ hectic direction works well on Becky Minto’s sparse but spangly set, at the centre of which is Wilf – a stripped-back trolley with a steering wheel stands in well for a car – and everything is vibrantly lit by Renny Robertson. Allan is fantastically frank as Calvin’s onesie-wearing driving- instructor-cum-therapist Thelma – the pair have delightful chemistry – and Gibson is equally great as a succession of cheery chaps Calvin encounters, from a leather-clad German S&M enthusiast to an Esther Perel-obsessed Green Flag mechanic.
It gets a bit messy dramaturgically towards the end – the last twenty minutes are nowhere near as tight as the first 70 – but Wilf is still a joyride of a show, leavened by X-rated laughs but with some serious stuff about loneliness and self-love at its heart, and driven by a deliciously dirty performance from Dylan. You will never look at a gearstick the same way again.