Lloyd Evans

Walk on the wild side

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A good title works wonders at the Edinburgh Fringe. Oliver Reed: Wild Thing (Gilded Balloon) has a simple and succinct name that promises excitement, drama and celebrity gossip. And it delivers. Mike Davis and Bob Crouch’s exhilarating monologue races through the chief highlights of Oliver Reed’s career. Showmanship ran in his veins. On his father’s side, he was the grandson of Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the founder of Rada. But the connection was illegitimate. Reed’s grandmother had six children with Tree although they never married. Her surname, she claimed, was a facetious comment on the relationship. ‘I’m a frail Reed in the shadow of a mighty Tree.’

Young Ollie was packed off to boarding school where everyone spoke in posh ‘quack-quack’ accents. He was a keen athlete, a reluctant bully and a hopeless scholar. ‘I wore my dunce’s cap like a crown.’ At 17, he discovered Soho. After getting into a fight at a strip club, he was hired as a bouncer. His father despaired. ‘You’ll either become a burglar or an actor.’ After taking roles in Hammer Horror films, playing smouldering villains and doomed counts, he auditioned for Bill Sikes in Oliver! He got it. ‘An actor playing a burglar.’

He became a superstar. From his mansion in Surrey he began to set world records for boozing. He claims to have consumed 120 pints of beer in a single evening. He refused to further his career by pandering to Hollywood royalty. He called Jack Nicholson ‘a balding midget’. And when Steve McQueen flew to England to discuss a film project the meeting ended prematurely after Reed vomited on McQueen’s shoes.

Rob Crouch, a charismatic performer, shows us Ollie as a schoolboy, a movie idol and a grizzled, elderly drunk. He reveals his warmth, his volatility, and something else as well: the sheer village-idiot strangeness of the man. Reed had a marvellous knack as a phrase-maker and the script honours this talent to the full. Towards the end, he described himself as a dustbin. ‘People like to kick me over to see if rubbish comes out. And it does. But I hope there are some bells and ribbons among the debris.’

His last film, Gladiator, was intended to be a glorious comeback. He promised the director, Ridley Scott, that he’d quit alcohol during the shoot as long as he could ‘go mad’ every Sunday. Uh-oh. His purged and sober system couldn’t take the impact of a sudden deluge of drink, and he collapsed after one of his Sunday binges. It wasn’t booze that killed him in the end. It was abstinence.

Paul Wilson (Lie. Cheat. Steal. Confessions of a Real Hustler, 140, The Pleasance), the chubby one from television’s The Real Hustle, is a reformed con man who teaches others to avoid the sort of scams he used to perpetrate. Here’s one. You bet a stranger that he can’t ‘count from ten to one backwards’. The stranger accepts, and counts ‘ten, nine, eight, etc.’. But he loses. To count from ‘ten to one backwards’ means counting ‘one, two, three’, etc. The performance showcases Wilson’s formidable card skills. He can deal from the bottom, the top and the middle of the pack. And he can cut to all four aces. If that means nothing to you, you’ll get nothing from this show. But card aficionados in the audience were sighing with admiration at his sleight of hand. In truth, I was expecting more tricks and street scams, as the title promised. So I left feeling like a mug.

Steve Richards is fed up with Newsnight. He gives the programme a monstering in his excellent one-man show, Rock N Roll Politics (Assembly, George Square). ‘All the researchers are called Rupert, even the women,’ he says. They phone him at noon, grill him for three hours on the issues of the day, and then summon him to appear on air where he gets barely two minutes to speak. He needs more time.

His treasure-house of political tales reaches back to the mid-Seventies and he seasons the gossip with impersonations. He does Harold Wilson well. And his George Osborne — a shrill, precious, effeminate monotone — is brilliantly accurate.

Like any political columnist, he has lots of aphorisms up his sleeve. ‘Referendums are like femmes fatales. They lure leaders to their doom.’ He believes that Alex Salmond has snookered himself by promising a poll on independence in 2014 that he can neither win nor cancel.

Richards has lots of information on Ed Miliband, who was once considered so left-wing by Gordon Brown that he called him ‘my little Tony Benn’. After his first speech as Labour leader, Miliband received a text hailing ‘the best defence of social democracy I’ve heard in 30 years’. It came from Vince Cable. These subterranean lines of communication, says Richards, have continued ever since. In a future Lib-Lab government, Cable could be chancellor.