Filthy and fiercely funny, James Ley’s new play Wilf is a whirlwind ride that sees its newly single protagonist spiral out of control.
Calvin is in need of a change. Stuck in an abusive relationship and recently abandoned by his mother for the Bible Belt, Calvin’s way out comes in the form of a used Volkswagen that he affectionately names Wilf. 104 driving lessons and 12 test attempts later, he finally has his license and the chance to leave his old life behind. Amongst a series of wild (and explicitly detailed) sexcapades on their journey together, Calvin develops an unusual co-dependency with Wilf – revealing that he may not be dealing with things as well as he thought.
Clad in an ironic death metal Celine Dion shirt, Michael Dylan is marvellous as sex-obsessed Calvin. Uncensored – and slightly unhinged – Dylan revels in his character’s vulgarity and campiness. Calvin’s crass humour is delivered perfectly by Dylan: though Ley certainly pushes the audience to their limit at times, particularly as Calvin becomes more “attached” to Wilf, Dylan’s commitment to the role works.
By opting for a stripped-back set design, director Gareth Nicholls allows for all the focus to be on Ley’s characters (Wilf included) – though that’s not to say there aren’t any surprises in store behind Wilf and his wooden-beaded seats. Accompanying this unconventional love story is an excellent 80s playlist, which comically reflect Calvin’s state of mind. And, of course, what would a queer love story be without a lip-sync or two? In addition to renditions of “Car Wash” and “Simply the Best”, we are treated to a surreal recreation of Bonnie Tyler’s “Hero” music video “on the bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond”.
It’s not all casual hook ups and heartfelt power ballads, though. Despite his best attempts to distract himself, Calvin’s loneliness and untreated mental health issues begins to have an impact. Again, Dylan excels in portraying Calvin as a vulnerable individual without a sense of direction. Ley’s use of flashback (or flash-forward) scenes to a bloody, vomiting Calvin after a collision also adds a sense of unease to the action, with the audience knowing from the outset that trouble is on its way.
Trying to steer him in the right direction are various figures, including Irene Allan’s Thelma – an ex-psychotherapist-cum driving instructor who tries to resist getting involved in Calvin’s affairs. Admittedly, there is some disconnect between Allan and her character. Her annoyed, standoffish nature is very one note at the beginning – her constant shouting quickly becomes grating. Later, her drug-fuelled “visions” of the Virgin Mary encouraging her to help Calvin are, to be frank, bizarre. Though Allan does what she can, it unfortunately doesn’t feel like a great match. Thankfully, the same cannot be said for Neil John Gibson, who is fierce competition for Dylan in terms of getting the biggest laughs. In addition to playing Frank – a kind-hearted comic with his own mummy issues – Gibson plays a slew of memorable characters who briefly encounter Calvin on his journey.
Definitely not for everyone but nevertheless weird but wonderful, Wilf is a riotous and raunchy hour and a half of theatre. It’s certainly unlike anything else happening this Christmas.