Writer: Mike Davis and Rob Crouch
Director: Kate Bannister
Reviewer: Brian Gorman
The legendary hellraiser gets the full one man play treatment in this touring production starring a very brave actor indeed (Rob Crouch) who takes on a hell of a job. Oliver Reed was a massive star, and a big box office success in the 60s and 70s, but managed to completely derail his acting career due to his enduring love of excessive drinking and bar room brawling. By the time of his death in 1999 (during the shooting of Ridley Scott’s epic ‘Gladiator’), Reed’s big screen stardom was little more than a fading memory, and he was far better known for shambolic appearances on tv chat shows, when it was difficult to tell whether he was actually drunk or simply playing the fool.
An expectant (though small) audience were kept waiting for around 20 minutes for the show to begin, heightening the tension impressively. It was difficult to guess whether this was an intentional artistic tactic or merely the Epstein Theatre holding the proceedings up for latecomers. The show eventually began with Crouch in a gorilla suit parading up and down the front row and cajoling the audience into a chorus of The Trogg’s ‘Wild Thing’. A fitting entrance, and very clever as it certainly threw us all off guard and allowed Crouch to eventually reveal his face while the audience were still getting over their initial shock.
Crouch’s Reed arrived on stage fully formed, and from then on it was full speed ahead. Crouch has the rugby player’s build, and the clipped delivery but also brings a melancholic air to this most beloved of booze-soddened thespians. The set comprised a small well-stocked bar in what we imagine must be Reed’s home, and within minutes the actor had knocked back two small bottles of beer and handed out several more to the audience. A superb tactic, and one that served to get us onside immediately.
As with all stage biographies, it is always a challenge to plough through the early years and attempt to reveal nuggets of experience that would shed light on the subject’s subsequent personality and public persona. Here we learned of Reed’s schooldays where he combined being a playground bully (in response, it is suggested, to his taunting by the other children for his undiagnosed dyslexia). Crouch effortlessly became the awkward schoolboy; baggy shorts (with a generous builder’s cleavage), half mast socks, and ill-fitting rugby shirt. Rattling through Reed’s youth it wasn’t long before our hero hit the bottle and began to idolise the macho American cinema actors who he identified with far more than their more refined English counterparts. To Reed, the likes of Robert Mitchum would always provide far greater inspiration than David Niven or Roger Moore.
Once we were into Reed’s big screen career the gloves were well and truly off, with Crouch gulping down an increasing volume of (one assumes real) beer, along with whiskey, vodka, and everything else he could lay his hands on. Tales of drinking competitions with Keith Moon and Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins were both colourful, tragic, and masterfully brought to life by an increasingly sozzled Reed/Crouch, and as we entered the final hurdle the alcohol was spraying the front row as the hairless gorilla staggered from one chat show debacle to another.
Director Kate Bannister certainly put her performer through the mill with several scenes involving audience participation (one lady is persuaded to re-enact a talkshow anecdote as actress Shelley Winters, who famously poured a drink over Reed’s head on live tv). ‘Oliver Reed: Wild Thing’ is a real tour-de-force which builds and builds into a drunken raging whirlwind, and the standing ovation for Rob Crouch was certainly deserved.