The importance of being Mike Read: Can UK miss be a hit in the US?

DJ, political activist, novelist... is there no end to Mike Read's talents? Some would say yes, but he is undaunted – and plans to take his much-maligned play 'Oscar' to New York. By Cahal Milmo
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The Independent Culture

One is the unchallenged master of Victorian wit. The comic genius of the other stretches only to being the inspiration for spoof DJs Smashie and Nicey. But it seems it is harder than the most unforgiving theatre critic could have imagined to kill off the unlikely showbiz pairing of Oscar Wilde and the former Radio 1 host Mike Read.

Some three years after his West End musical about the famously bohemian playwright and raconteur closed after a single, universally panned, performance, the one-time owner of Radio 1's best bouffant confirmed yesterday that he is on the verge of reviving the ill-fated production for a run in New York.

Oscar, which lasted only one night at London's Shaw Theatre in 2004, after being variously described as "bilge" and "two hours of leaden awfulness", is in rehearsals at Manhattan's off-Broadway York Theatre after Read, who wrote and directed the original, gave permission for the play to be resurrected.

With a self-confidence reminiscent of Wilde, who once passed through customs in New York remarking "I have nothing to declare except my genius," the 57-year-old DJ remains unbowed in his belief that Oscar was unfairly slaughtered by the London critics, not least because its opening night fell foul of technical hitches outside his control.

Since the widely publicised flop, the radio presenter, who attracts lampoons and praise in equal measure, has continued a quietly industrious existence, hosting a daily radio show on a station in the Essex resort of Frinton-on-Sea, while indulging his fledgling career as an artist. He is also the founder of the Rupert Brooke Society, has recently completed the second in a series of crime novels and was briefly touted as a potential Conservative candidate for London mayor.

"After the experience at the Shaw Theatre, I didn't want to look at Oscar for a while," he said. "But one of the guys involved with the original production and the management at the York Theatre kept on asking me for two years if I would come over and talk about reviving it because they loved the idea and the songs.

"In the end I decided that if they were that keen I should give it a go and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. I'm still proud of it and I'm very happy for it to get another go. The only thing is resisting the temptation to go back to it every time I think of a way of making it better.

"I've been around long enough to know how it works in England. There was no interest in Oscar until we had to close it because of the problems at the theatre. But once we closed I had three camera crews following me around. That experience is still raw but I'm very hopeful that we will get a run in New York. I have an awful lot of things going on."

The new production, which follows a workshop given by Read in Manhattan, was previewed to an audience including Broadway writers and producers who "clearly loved the show", according to its creator.

It will be difficult for any new performance of Oscar to elicit worse reviews than its original.

Referring to the 2004 debacle, Read insisted that a last-minute rehearsal by a 20-piece Brazilian jazz band ruined the microphone settings for the opening night and complained that inadequate marketing doomed the production to failure. It was closed after only five tickets sold for the second night.

Nonetheless, critics also set upon what they said were the DJ's clunky rhyming couplets and less-than-inspiring tunes evoking Wilde's humiliation following the libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry, which revealed his homosexuality. The lyrics include the line from the Marquess to his son, Bosie, who was Wilde's lover: "I am going to stand my ground and fight/the things you two do just can't be right."

Referring to the problems with the microphones, one critic wrote: "You begin to wonder whether the sound system is being affected by the hefty rumbling of Oscar Wilde turning in his grave."

Despite lasting only a single performance, the show cannot lay claim to the shortest run for a West End play. According to Guinness World Records that dubious privilege belongs to The Intimate Revue at the Duchess Theatre in March 1930, which ended when most of the audience walked out at the interval on its opening night.

Read, who lost £80,000 on Oscar's first "run", suffered further ignominy on ITV's I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here when he was the first contestant to be voted out.

Shrugging off such reverses, he is also considering bringing Oscar back to the stage in Britain. He said: "We've been approached by several festivals about doing it. But this time we'd want to get it very right."

Read has also written more than 40 books, including several volumes of poetry and a biography of his friend Sir Cliff Richard, as well as writing 10 musicals. His stage tribute to Sir Cliff, entitled Cliff: The Musical, was well received along with a production based on A Midsummer Night's Dream, called Oh Puck.

The former breakfast show DJ also presented the children's TV show Saturday Superstore. When he is not presenting his daily show on Big L, the Essex radio station based above a former building society office, Read is busy commuting to London to help Boris Johnson in his mayoral campaign or putting the finishing touches to his next art exhibition. His first show included a portrait of England's 1966 World Cup winners created from Starburst and Skittles sweets.

The DJ said that he was also working on his second crime thriller: a novel "along the lines of Ruth Rendell and Colin Dexter". He said: "I am a doer – one of those people who thinks if there is something to be done then I should get on and do it."

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