Irene Allan

Wilf

10/12/21

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

James Ley’s latest offering is about as far away from a ‘Christmas play’ as it could be. In fact, there’s only one nod towards the festive season: a decorated tree in the corner of the stage. Tree aside, this is more of an antidote to Yuletide than an evocation of it. And that’s fine, because there’s plenty of the traditional stuff on offer at other venues in the city. Wilf is a December play for those who want something… else.

And it really is something else. Where to start? Calvin (Michael Dylan) is struggling. He’s bipolar – in the midst of a manic episode – and everything is going wrong. He knows he needs to leave his abusive boyfriend, Seth, but there’s no one who can help. Not his mum: she’s left for a new life in the American bible belt, and has cut him out of her life. Not his driving instructor, Thelma (Irene Allan), because – after a mere 104 lessons – Calvin has passed his test, and the ex-psychotherapist is pleased to be rid of him. So where can he turn?

The answer soon presents itself: Wilf. Wilf is an unlikely saviour, not least because he is a car. Specifically, Wilf is a beaten up old Volkswagen, so there’s more than a hint of Herbie about him – although Wilf’s antics are more colourful than his predecessor’s. And by colourful, I mean sexual. Calvin and Wilf’s relationship is intense.

To be fair, Calvin’s pretty intense all round. With his shiny new driving license and his battered old car, he finally finds the courage to break away from Seth, but he’s a long way from feeling okay. A road trip around Scotland, staying in Airbnbs and cruising graveyards for anonymous sex, seems appropriate. And, with Wilf’s help, Calvin might just make it.

This tight three-hander, directed by Gareth Nicholls, is equal parts quirky and charming. Dylan is immensely likeable as Calvin, and treads the line between comedy and tragedy with absolute precision. The soundtrack is banging – who doesn’t love a bit of Bonnie Tyler? – and the simple set (by Becky Minto) makes us feel like we’re with Calvin all the way: inside the car; inside his head.

Allan brings a powerful energy to the role of Thelma, while Neil John Gibson, as everyone else, represents a gentler, more nurturing humanity, especially in the form of Frank.

All in all, Wilf is a gloriously weird concoction, and a most welcome addition to the winter theatre scene.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Lyceum Christmas Tales

17/12/20

Lyceum Online

God, how we’ve missed The Lyceum! We’ve seen so many wonderful productions here over the years and it really doesn’t help that we live just around the corner, and so see it standing forlorn and empty on an almost daily basis. The production team for Christmas Tales had hoped to be able to admit socially distanced audiences to these live performances, had even gone to the lengths of adapting the stage to accommodate them, but it was not to be. So, in the end, Christmas Tales is a streaming-only affair.

Designed as a kind of family-friendly advent calendar, eight short plays are available to watch for free on the Lyceum’s website – and this pay-for-view special features four longer tales, streamed live direct from the theatre’s stage. The pieces vary in tone and are linked by some truly spellbinding folk tunes. We are treated to The Christmas Ghost by Louise Ironside, the story of a young boy (Ryan Hunter) discovering an unexpected presence in his house. Jackie Kay’s Christmas with Angela Davis is the evocative memoir of a young Glaswegian girl (Helen Katamba) falling under the spell of the imprisoned activist after seeing her face on that famous poster.

There’s an interval at the midway point (though of course, we miss the chattering crowd in the bar) and then we’re back for the second half.

The Returning of the Light by Lynda Radley is the stirring saga of a young girl (Kirsty Findlay)’s quest to bring the sunlight back to her winter-ravaged village. Finally, my favourite of the quartet, A Cold Snap by Shona Reppe is the story of Carole (Irene Allan), a contemporary suburban Scrooge, who finds herself forced to ‘celebrate’ the festive season by a mischievous Norwegian sprite.

There’s a genuine air of magic throughout the show, with the cast utilising the full depth of the Lyceum’s extended stage to great effect. A Cold Snap in particular uses the format of film to canny effect, with ever more elaborate festive decorations seeming to appear out of nowhere.

Afterwards, we head out for our nightly walk around the empty city and, quite by chance, bump into Ryan Hunter, on his way back to his lodgings, guitar across his back. We’re able to congratulate him, which is, I suppose, the closest that any of the cast of this charming show can hope to get to the hearty round of applause they deserve.

But this is 2020 and we must be realistic. Until we can safely return to the theatre, shows like this serve as a timely reminder of how truly enchanting the theatre can be – and of how profoundly we are missing it.

4 stars

Philip Caveney