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Wilf at the Traverse Theatre – Edinburgh Fringe review

The show makes a return to the Traverse Theatre

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

© Mihaela Bodlovic

"My story is about love. No, it's about loss. No, it's about love and loss and pain and loneliness. But it's funny". This line from James Ley's play is emblazoned over all the posters advertising Wilf. Which is not surprising since it's the perfect summary of an original and dark comedy, back at the Traverse after a successful run in December last year.

Its hero is Calvin, a man who we first meet in the middle of his 104th driving lesson. He has failed his test 11 times; when he is successful at his 12th attempt, it is down to his purchase of a car, called Wilf, with whom he gradually falls in love. We know it all turns to disaster because his story is punctuated with scenes in which shadowy figures in the luminous yellow coats of emergency workers are trying to rescue the driver from his car.

Calvin, as embodied with remarkable vigour and deep compassion by Michael Dylan, is himself a car wreck, abandoned by his mother who has gone to America to find God, and stuck in an abusive relationship with a man who uses a small set of steps more easily to pin Calvin against a wall. His driving instructor, Thelma, a "bisexual, polyamorous, former-psychotherapist" is tired of the fact that he has both nearly killed her three times, and has overshared 15,000 more.

When he passes his test, Calvin's life falls into freefall and we follow him on his journey of discovery, which takes him to Loch Lomond to the strains of "Bonnie Bonnie Tyler" and into the depths of despair and breakdown.

The story, funny and filthy and incredibly sad, is told with great panache. Becky Minto's set, which puts Wilf centre-stage, a stripped-down shell that can hold all Calvin's feelings, is a triumph, beautifully lit by Renny Robertson. Director Gareth Nicholls keeps things moving at incredible pace, much helped by movement direction from Emily Jane Boyle that sends Calvin spinning around the stage to power ballads – and to Car Wash.

As Thelma, a woman with her own backstory of disaster, Irene Allan is wonderfully wry and deliciously grounded, especially when battling with a vision of the Virgin Mary. Neil John Gibson fulfils the difficult task of differentiating all the men that Calvin encounters – and usually makes a pass at.

The happy-ish ending arrives a little too pat, but the road towards it is surprisingly satisfying, treating difficult subjects with a light touch while never minimising their pain.

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