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The life and times of a hellraiser
Legendary characters have deservedly been immortalised on stage – Bob Golding brought the sunshine back in the award-winning Morecambe and Damian Williams proved he had the magic touch in Being Tommy Cooper .
Now Mike Davis and Rob Crouch have their turn with Oliver Reed: Wild Thing , which gleaned highly favourable reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.
Notably, all of these subjects died of a heart attack while in the middle of doing what they loved the most. Tragically, they all passed away well before their time – Eric, 58, died shortly after a curtain call, Tommy, 63, collapsed on stage and Oliver, 61, died at a bar in Valetta, Malta during a break from filming Gladiator .
Of course, Reed’s notoriety as a drinker and hell-raiser is what most remember. The play’s title references his appearance alongside fellow mega-boozer Alex Hurricane Higgins in The Troggs, 1992 video for Wild Thing . Oliver is shown strutting about in leathers, stripped to the waist and head banging on stage with the band. He also appears in bizarre cut-aways larking about in a pool or sharing a foam-filled bath with a leggy blonde. What we tend to forget is that as an actor he appeared in more than 60 films with acclaimed roles in Oliver! , Women in Love and The Devils .
Playing Oliver as well as co-writing the one-man show, Rob has sought to portray both sides.
“When you see him on TV chat shows in the 1980s and 1990s he’s a tragic figure not to be admired, but in earlier interviews he’s magnetic, he’s articulate, at the top of his game and just playing with the audience,” says Rob. “He was an entertainer and producers knew if you got him drunk and put him on a TV show he would reward your faith and do exactly what you wanted. There was a time in his life when he was manipulated in that way.
“We trace the arc of his career – from when he was in his real pomp and had the world at his feet to when he threw it all away. Then, just before he died, he did Gladiator and there’s that wonderful redemption because he stole a film again.”
Rob is co-artistic director of Brute Farce and Donkey Work. Acting credits include Around the World in 80 Days , Burke and Hare and he is one half of the sketch duo Clarkson and Crouch and co-creator of the comedy drama podcast The Paranormalists .
Oliver was renowned for his intense physicality and charisma. I ask Rob what has been the most demanding aspects of the performance?
“Me talking for 70 minutes. Ollie was a great talker, he wasn’t a literary person because he was profoundly dyslexic but he had a way of speaking that is really enjoyable to get your tongue round. I have a very clear idea of the sound of his voice but to be truly like him you can’t just be reciting words and it is tiring holding that focus.
“You need to have some sense of a journey, but because he wasn’t given to self-analysis it is one that he would have resisted. He was not in the habit of revealing very much.
“His strength came from channelling the chaos within himself. What made him great on screen was how incredibly controlled he was – it’s taught me a lot about what the process of being a good actor is all about.
“He was a smart enough man to keep his aggression in check in front of a camera. Ridley Scott, Ken Russell and Michael Winner understood how to channel it. They knew it might only be a few takes before he got bored and went off the boil and that you have to be ready to capture that performance. Ollie’s greatest enemy was always boredom.”
Oliver Reed: Wild Thing is at the Old Town Hall, Hemel Hempstead on Friday, September 21 at 8pm. Details: 01442 228091, www.oldtownhall.co.uk