James Ley

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

Love Song to Lavender Menace

12/10/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Love Song to Lavender Menace is a charming piece of metatheatre: an homage to a book shop disguised as… an homage to a book shop. Not just any old book shop, mind. This is Lavender Menace, the iconic gay/lesbian/feminist book shop that served Edinburgh’s queer community for five years in the ’80s.

Lewis (Pierce Reid) and Glen (Matthew McVarish) are packing up; the shop as they know it is going; it’s being renamed and relocated – and Lewis too is moving on. He’s sad and anxious, so focuses his attention on rehearsing the performance he and Glen have prepared as a parting gift for owners Bob and Sigrid, telling the story of the store and what it’s meant to so many marginalised people. The quirky direction by Ros Philips sees Lewis playing Sigrid ‘as a statue’ – arms aloft – and Glen being inventive with a roll of parcel tape.

The set is delightful: all chalkboard bookshelves backlit with blank white spines. It’s both playful and uncluttered, suggestive of a place where people can write their own lives.

It’s a funny, poignant play, and it’s no surprise to see a packed auditorium as it returns to the Lyceum, this time on the main stage. Playwright James Ley’s affection for Lavender Menace and what it represents shines through in every scene, evoking a sense of nostalgia even for those of us who were never there. For those who were, this must be a powerful draw indeed.

Cleverly, despite the claustrophobic lens through which we view this intimate memoir, we are offered a wider perspective, as Sigrid Nielson’s voice emanates from a cassette deck, ethereal and portentous. It gets better, then it gets worse, she says. Then better, then worse, then better again. We’re reminded of how bad things can be: of Clause 28 and gay-bashing, of the incendiary homophobic rhetoric that prevailed in the ’80s.

Nevertheless, the disturbing backdrop notwithstanding, this is not a tragic tale. It is a buoyant, vibrant celebration of a sanctuary, of a radical space in a conservative city.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield