The problem with one-person shows from an audience point of view is that, if you don’t like what’s going on, you know that no one else is going to come along and perk things up. There are no such worries with this rendition of hell-raising actor Oliver Reed; performer Rob Crouch manages to bring several characters to life as they impact on, or are affected by, the man himself.
The set (designed by director Kate Bannister) represents the bar in Malta in which Reed collapsed and died whilst on location for Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Crouch bounds onstage in a gorilla costume and, when he doesn’t quite get the applause he requires, goes off and does it again. This sets the tone for an informal hour of anecdote and banter. It’s a pretty straightforward chronological account of the actor’s life, from learning to be a bully at school, to his time in the army and thence into an unusual and patchy film career. Crouch makes a convincing Reed physically and vocally, and his impersonations of others (Michael Winner, Ridley Scott, and Russell Crowe, amongst others) are also terrific. Bravely, he also gets members of the audience to play other characters, including Alan Bates with whom Reed performed the iconic naked wrestling scene in Women in Love (the audience member thankfully didn’t have to do the naked thing).
Reed’s life is quite well documented, and his legendary drunken appearances on various chat shows down the years are mostly available on YouTube. It is, however, fascinating to be ‘in the presence’ of this huge monster of a personality. Picky criticisms aside - I’m not sure Crouch needed to change costumes as often as he did to mark the transitions in Reed’s life. However, my main problem with the production is concerned with the concept of admiration, for Reed was, indeed, a monster. His drinking, seen here as a life-affirming thing (free beers are seen passed round to some of the audience), presumably hurt and damaged those he loved in the way unchecked alcoholism always does. I would have liked a slightly deeper insight into what must have been some very dark times in the actor’s life.
But perhaps that’s what this piece is asking us: why do we venerate hell-raisers? In this show from beyond the grave Reed seems to be saying, rightly, that we wanted the shocking stories and the punch ups and appalling behaviour. That’s what we want from all our celebrities deep down, from Reed to George Best to Alex Higgins to Amy Winehouse. As Crouch asks, arms outstretched and looking threateningly into the audience, Maximus Decimus Meridius-like: ‘Are you not entertained?’