When Richard Burton appeared on the Dick Cavett show in 1980, the host would later describe the actor as “already a beautiful ruin.” Oliver Reed is part of this same small club of legendary hell-raisers. Perhaps less well known to younger audiences than his cohorts (Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, Burton etc.) Reed’s crazy escapades and notorious drinking binges have already become the stuff of show business legend. Rob Crouch delivers an uncanny, tour-de-force performance in
The great triumph of Wild Thing is that for much of the play we are happily oblivious to the tragedy of the man.
We join Reed on the location of his last film, Gladiator, in Malta. He’s out on his last great binge and he’ll reportedly down twelve lagers, eight double rums and half a bottle of scotch (nothing compared to the night he allegedly drank 126 pints) before he collapses of a heart attack. It’s clear the actor is way past his prime. He suffered the indignity of having to read for his part but, having been cast, is encouraged to make a go for “his final act”.
Crouch runs through the famous anecdotes: the early days as a bona fide international star, the night he and Keith Moon threw a TV set out a hotel window, the time he jeopardized his fledgling career by getting 36 stitches across his face after a brawl. The more effective stories are the personal ones. The descriptions of life with his two wives and how his father believed him destined to become either a burglar or an actor.
This is a deliciously entertaining show. Crouch effortlessly captures his audience and has us in stitches. There are smatterings of audience participation – in one standout scene, two people play Shelly Winters and Johnny Carson, the night the former downed a glass of whiskey over Reed’s head.
The great triumph of Wild Thing is that for much of the play we are happily oblivious to the tragedy of the man. He is the classic anti-hero and we love him. Crouch creates the impression that we’ve been out drinking with him (partly because of the impressive quantity of liquid consumed on stage) and we begin to appreciate just how these charismatic yet badly behaved actors got away with it.
When Reed tells us that his only regret is that he didn’t sleep with “every woman in the world” we just don’t believe him. There’s something so altogether tragic about Crouch’s creation. Perhaps Reed trusted too much in his own legend. This play is an effective portrayal of a man who, in Reed’s own words, was at least “brave enough to drink himself to death.”