It sometimes feels as if Oliver Reed’s larger than life personality – his infamous contributions to the chat shows of the 1970s and 80s in particular – outstrip the memory of most of what he did on screen. A descendant of Peter the Great, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (founder of RADA) and most crucially the film director Carol Reed (who cast him in Oliver!), what Ollie really thought his audience wanted of him was “to be a right bastard” and get very drunk. His preferred lineage relating him to the great topers of the 20th century: Harris, O’Toole and Burton.
At least that is the opinion of Wild Thing, a theatrical imagining of a late night session at the bar with the great hell raiser himself.
In a snappy, concise and entertaining 70 minutes Rob Crouch celebrates Oliver Reed’s greatest moments of inebriation with Keith Moon, Alex Higgins and, as one story goes, an entire rugby team.
Crouch, also the co-writer, is a huge, jaw-thrusting brute, extending to full wingspan and eyeballing the audience of the cabaret-style St. James Theatre Studio at every opportunity. And the space is ideal: intimate, inviting and highly conducive to Reed’s tall tales.
But Crouch is lacking that twinkle, that delicious relish that comes with imparting a favourite anecdote time and time again to anyone who will listen. At the peak of his drunkenness, when the performance needs to really zing and seduce us, Crouch is a beat behind. At times, unsure of why the audience is laughing, prefiguring the disorientation – which is to come in his later years – too soon.
Anyone who has seen Reed’s performances on Michael Aspel or David Letterman will know that watching his notorious antics is quite sad. The knowledge that Aspel’s show was actually pre-recorded and aired the following night compounds the sense of schadenfreude to which everyone contributed.
In Wild Thing, Ollie says that people think he is a dustbin: they want to push him over and watch the garbage come out. And that is painfully true, once the Master of the Revels he becomes the butt of every joke in these later years – upstaged on The Word by a plastic dinosaur.
In typically puerile fashion, The Word secretly filmed Ollie in his dressing room before the show and aired his staggering drunkenness live on the programme. Reed admirably plays along with the joke but in his eyes we can see humiliation. He used to be the envy of everyone he met – talented, charismatic and full of life but in this moment we see him absolutely lost, outmoded and usurped by those more daring and controversial even than him. This is the moment that was missing from Wild Thing. We witnessed Reed’s pluck and chutzpah on the way up but were deprived of reflection and inner life on the way down.
Because in that moment on The Word, we are watching Reed watching himself from the outside – drunk and alone, stumbling around an empty dressing room. This was an opportunity for the play to creep into the dark, self-loathing corners of Reed’s psyche and perhaps confront this audience that has encouraged his bad behaviour for so long. It would have given the character a complexity and self-awareness, which would have made him painfully human.
Aside from that, the play is extremely well made. It is peppered with great one-liners and achieves a fluency of anecdote which is a pleasure to behold. The writers deal deftly with the elephant in the room (naked hearth-side wrestling) by having an audience member read the passage direct from D.H. Lawrence and successfully puppeteer us into cheering at some of Reed’s most derogatory utterances.