THE HELLRAISING life and times of Oliver Reed are vividly brought to life in acclaimed Oliver Reed – Wild Thing which comes to the Town Hall Theatre on Thursday May 2 at 8pm.
Swaggeringly performed by Rob Crouch, who co-wrote the script with Mike Davis, the play charts Reed’s incredible story, from the success of Oliver! and leading roles for Ken Russell to boozy adventures with Keith Moon and notorious TV appearances.
Reed was born in Wimbledon in 1938. His father, Peter, was a sports journalist, Sir Carol Reed, the film director, was his uncle, and his grandfather was the eminent actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree.
Reed’s father, despairing of him as the class dunce, predicted he would become either a burglar or an actor. In the end he was an actor who famously played a burglar, Bill Sikes, in Carol Reed’s film of Oliver!
Reed had many roles on TV and film but his offscreen life eventually overshadowed his acting. He is said to have once consumed four cases of wine, followed by a bottle of Chanel No 5 as a chaser. He behaved outrageously on television chat shows and once threw up over Steve McQueen.
In Oliver Reed – Wild Thing, we meet Reed on the last day of his life, in a pub in Malta in 1999 where he was filming Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Rob Crouch brilliantly evokes Reed in a show which celebrates his lust for life (sometimes in all its ugliness) yet also suggests the tragedy of this remarkable man.
“We try to get under the skin of Oliver Reed and paint as complete a picture as possible,” Crouch tells me. “We’re not just glorifying bad behaviour, we try to present a picture of a very complicated man and people can make up their own minds about him. He experienced an awful lot in his 61 years and while in many ways that was quite a short life it was one that burned very brightly.
“Oliver always wanted to be a movie star. He admired people like Marlon Brando, James Dean, Rod Steiger, those American stars of that very real, moody school, rather than the old style English theatrical tradition which was something he had no time for, even though his grandfather had been a famous actor.
“He didn’t get much assistance from Carol Reed in his early career, he went to see him when he was thinking of becoming an actor and Carol told him ‘Don’t, it’s a ridiculous life’ so Oliver felt he got his roles purely on merit.”
Reed enjoyed a fruitful partnership with director Ken Russell, starring for him in both TV and film productions.
“They were both pretty bonkers but Russell helped him enormously and there was great mutual respect between them,” Crouch observes. “Russell’s autobiography is enormously complimentary about Reed and his professionalism. They both liked to drink and to tear the place up off-set but they understood each other very well and Reed admitted that much of his best work was done with Ken Russell. The performance he was most proud of was in Russell’s The Devils.”
Oliver’s son Mark has praised the play, declaring that it captures Reed’s “very spirit”. How did he get on with his boisterous dad?
“They got on very well,” Crouch tells me. “Mark’s upbringing was far from typical but it was very happy. Oliver had a childlike sensibility in a lot of ways. Mark talks about Oliver waking him up at night and going out into the woods to play soldiers. He had a searchlight set up outside his house and he’d send Mark and his friends out into the garden and he’d try to find them.
“There was always that invitation to play which was part of what made him a great actor, that childlike curiosity and willingness to get involved and throw himself completely into things. Mark will also admit there were times when he found his father’s antics embarrassing.”
Reed’s embarrassing antics included drunken appearances on TV chatshows but Crouch points out that programme makers were often delighted for the actor to be inebriated.
“A lot of those TV shows weren’t live,” he says. “You’d have viewers saying ‘Did you see Reed? He was out of control, it was terrible!’ but it was a recorded programme and somebody had made the decision to broadcast it. There were definitely times when it was part of the plan to get him drunk and to misbehave, and Oliver was willing to comply with that.”
Reed’s final years were spent in Churchtown in Cork, where he is buried.
“He found a measure of contentment in Ireland,” Crouch states. “He felt that the Irish people understood him and he understood them. He found it easy to fit in, he’d meet up with the locals in the pub and sit around and tell stories.”
Oliver Reed – Wild Thing is at the Town Hall on Thursday May 2 at 8pm. Tickets are €18/15 and available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie