Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre continues its tradition of being non-traditional this Christmas season. This December’s offering is Wilf by James Ley, a play about ‘love and loss and pain and happiness… But it’s funny!’, a description, it turns out, much easier to use as a tagline than to execute on the stage.
Wilf is a big swing and an even bigger miss
Wilf begins with a lot of promise: 80s music blasting throughout Traverse One before the play begins with a jolt. The lights go down, the music stops abruptly and the main character Calvin (Michael Dylan) forces himself on to the stage clearly in distress, about to tell ‘his story’. From there we meet Calvin’s driving instructor and unofficial therapist Thelma (Irene Allen) in a first scene which goes at 100 miles per hour, that I enjoyed immensely, but more in part to the expert direction of Gareth Nicholls. As the play progresses and we learn more about the toxicity of much of Calvin’s life, we meet Wilf, an old Volkswagen Polo and Calvin’s newest purchase after passing his test. After finally escaping an abusive relationship, Calvin takes Wilf for a road trip around Scotland attempting to find himself but instead discovering more about loneliness and self-love.
I’m very much a champion of queer storytelling and, while I respect James Ley immensely as a queer playwright, for me, Wilf is a big swing and an even bigger miss. Such excellent direction and performances are, unfortunately, let down by the writing. Since the original stage production of Fleabag, I’ve noticed a lot of writers attempting to create those same fourth-wall-breaking characters: single, sex-obsessed, in denial and emotionally damaged who attempt to redeem themselves in the end. The issue with the character of Calvin is that he is played for laughs the entire time: his pain; his struggles; his story. As a result, all emotional weight is lost. I couldn’t take Calvin seriously throughout and thus any potential redemption in his story arc was lost on me. The writing favoured too many graphic sexual escapades of Calvin and not enough time trying to develop the character emotionally. Ironically, these attempts at gritty realism made me even more detached from him. Even when there were poignant moments for Calvin’s character, the mood is ruined by a sexually charged comment in a desperate attempt to be provocative.
At times, the dialogue itself is a little all over the place. As Calvin and Thelma share their first scene together, there were a lot of buzz words and phrases, seemingly shoehorned into the dialogue to be as relentlessly relatable as possible, that just weren’t hitting – ‘cancelled’, ‘triggered’, ‘sashay away’, ‘emotional cum dump’. Once again, this results in the opposite of the intended effect. This is not how people talk. Furthermore, the general representation of Calvin’s character onstage through lazy stereotypes just made me feel demoralised as a queer person. It leaves me with a question: who was this play written for? Queer people? Young people? Straight women who have gay friends? I’m not sure.
Overall, Wilf boasts strong direction and a charismatic central performance by Michael Dylan. It’s unfortunate that the script does not live up to that same standard.