Dec 11 2021 | By More

★★★☆☆      Encouragingly filthy

Traverse Theatre: Wed 8 – Fri 24 Dec 2021
Review by Hugh Simpson

There is a pleasingly unruly feel to James Ley’s new play WILF, this year’s seasonably unseasonal offering from the Traverse. Full of heart, not to mention dialogue that would have given the Lord Chamberlain palpitations, it overcomes structural difficulties to produce a successful whole.

Ley’s road movie with a difference portrays the efforts of Calvin to pass his driving test (after only 11 attempts and 104 lessons) and break up with his abusive partner Seth. His dream is to set out on a journey of self-discovery, in search of anonymous sex, KFC and cheesy power ballads, with only an old Volkswagen (the Wilf of the title) for company.

Irene Allen and Michael Dylan in Wilf. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

Despite a couple of Christmas trees on the stage, there is nothing festive about this production. Indeed, it is about as far from being family entertainment as can be imagined. The website guidance of 16 plus is undoubtedly accurate for a thoroughly filthy script, stuffed with sex, drugs and Bonnie Tyler.

Much of the script is funny, as well as dealing sensitively with issues of loneliness, self-worth and mental health. The production is described as ‘a high octane and unapologetic exploration of queer love’, and it is certainly defiant and uncompromising in this regard, there is a lot in it that will have the widest resonance.

energetic, expansive and thoroughly sympathetic

Since Calvin (an energetic, expansive and thoroughly sympathetic Michal Dylan) opens by saying that his story is going to be funny, it is a good job that the subsequent humour content is high. Dylan is well backed up by Irene Allen as Calvin’s driving instructor and former therapist Thelma, unwillingly drawn back into therapy by constant collision with Calvin’s preoccupations. The cast is completed by Neil John Gibson in a variety of roles, which he discharges with humour and emotion.

Michael Dylan in Wilf. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

Director Gareth Nicholls has produced a production of considerable visual impact, helped greatly by choreographer Emily Jane Boyle’s input into a couple of show-stopping dance routines. Becky Minto’s design is also thoroughly impressive, elegantly addressing the problems of a story that has a car as one of its main characters. Susan Bear’s sound design is exemplary, notwithstanding the use of at least one power ballad too many.

At times, the insistence on reaching for another gag overshadows the more emotional elements of the script. This is not helped by the unwieldy structure of the play.

As one of those currently fashionable 90-minutes-straight-through productions, it does flag noticeably in the second half. While the jokes and characterisations work well, the actual storytelling is far less successful.

an involving affair

This is demonstrated by having one of the climactic sequences represented by little more than a narration by Allan, which (despite her sterling efforts) comes across as rather untheatrical. Since the rest of the production is so visually appealing, this proves a major drawback.

The ending, meanwhile, seems trite and conventional compared to much of what has gone before, particularly in the energetic and economically expressed first 45 minutes.

Nevertheless, this remains an involving affair, suitably impolite and surprisingly heartfelt.

Running time 1 hour 30 minutes (no interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge St, EH1 2ED
Wednesday 8 – Friday 24 December 2021.
Evenings at 8pm, Matinees Fri 17, Sat 18, Thurs 23, Fri 24 at 2 pm
Information and tickets at Book here.

Michael Dylan in Wilf. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic


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