St James Theatre Studio, London

Theatre review: Oliver Reed: Wild Thing - Rob Crouch skilfully embodies the actor in this pub-based piss-up

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If there were an award for “strongest bladder of the year” amongst the annual acting gongs, it's a safe bet that in 2013 it would go to Rob Crouch who has to down worrying quantities of liquid-posing-as-booze during his bravura solo turn as Oliver Reed in this one-man show which he co-wrote with Mike Davis.

The idea is that we are encountering the hell-raising actor on the last day of his life in a pub in Malta where he was filming a come-back role in Ridley Scott's movie Gladiator.

Pubs were an article of faith with Reed. Asked why he drank after his plastered rendition of “Wild Thing” on the infamous Aspel programme, Reed assumed a tone of squiffy self-righteousness and replied: “Because the finest people I have ever met in my life have been in pubs."

So it's fitting that his fatal session took place in one - and that this show is being performed at the St James Theatre in the intimate studio space which doubles as a bar.

From the moment he bounds on in a gorilla suit, Crouch establishes an expansive, rabble-rousing rapport with the audience of imbibers. “Has anyone ever told you that you have something of Alan Bates about you?” he glints mock-suggestively at a punter who is co-opted into reading out a bit of the naked wrestling scene from Women in Love and he he hits on a young woman to play Shelley Winters who notoriously poured a glass of whiskey over Reed's head on the Johnny Carson show in response to the actor's Neanderthal views about the female sex. 

Crouch skilfully catches the social and psychological contradictions of the clipped-accented public schoolboy and grandson of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the founder of RADA, who swore by a man-of-the-people preference for the company of artisans over actors, film over theatre, and pubs over clubs and turned the renovation of Broome Hall, his stately pile, into a never-ending piss-up promiscuously involving workers and rock stars. 

The script is a sprightly enough jog through the anecdotes  – how he chucked a television set through a hotel window with Keith Moon when room service was slow; how his father, despairing of him as the class dunce, predicted that he would either be an actor or a burglar, only for him to find fame, ironically, as Bill Sikes in Oliver! etc. But the tension in the play and in the performance between Reed as a loveable rogue and as a squandered talent reduced to making a defiant, increasingly pathetic exhibition of himself resolves in favour of the former and turns a rather desperate story into a fundamentally feel-good entertainment.

To August 18; 0844 264 2140

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