WILKO at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch
“The show doesn’t just lay down the facts. It is a well-informed celebration. A nostalgia trip that also looks forward as well as backwards”
“Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can tune into the ecstasy of life” declares John Wilkinson (more famously known as Wilko), bathed in the foggy orange glow of the Canvey Island oil refinery. Invariably Wilko was unlucky, yet he still managed to cling onto this ideology for dear life even – or rather especially – when it was slipping away from him. This is a man who bathes in the comfort of certainty; rejects religion and its tatty astrological and spiritual cast-offs in favour of science and creative pragmatism “being given twelve months to live is a great career move”. A rebel poet who never really grew up. An intellectual trapped in a chav’s body.
Jonathan Maitland’s biographical ‘play with music’ goes some way to explaining the outside forces that mould such a contradictory character but doesn’t dig too deep. Using quotations from Wilko himself, mixed with his own dynamic prose and the inimitable sound of Dr. Feelgood, Maitland opts for a more entertaining and dramatic approach. It is both a tribute and a tribute act. Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s staging is quite a mash-up of styles that, on paper, should never work. On the stage, however, in the hands of a quintet of actor/musos it creates a powerful and compelling piece of theatre.
Wilko famously stated that his terminal cancer made him feel alive. Johnson Willis’ portrayal of him pulses with the same vitality and energy, and uncanny attention to detail. The roughcast Estuary drawl is as full of Shakespeare quotes as expletives and his tantrums burn with misunderstood indignation. If Willis has a strong grasp of the personality, he nails the physicality and musicianship; pacing around the stage with eyes like searchlights, his jerking head movements in time to the stark, percussive chords of his guitar, wielded like a machine gun. Willis’ star turn is matched by Jon House’s Lee Brilleaux – the band’s frontman – who died of cancer at the age of 41. We witness the bitter personality clash and arguments that broke up the band in the late seventies. In Maitland’s narrative they even extend beyond the grave as Brilleaux returns like Marley’s ghost, ultimately leading to a spectral reconciliation. House multiroles, as do the other cast members, displaying versatility and sleight of hand costume changes. David John, when not behind the drum kit brilliantly adopts many personas, as does Georgina Field, who predominantly convinces as bassist ‘Sparko’ with a persuasive, gender-swapped portrayal and stage presence.
“The cast excel at reproducing the Dr. Feelgood sound”
The love of Wilko’s life, Irene Knight, left him a widower a decade before his own cancer diagnosis. Georgina Fairbanks is no wallflower, and she presents a steely Irene, evoking how much she meant to Wilko and how much her untimely death – also from cancer – shaped the musician’s outlook on life. Not so successful are earlier flashbacks to Wilko’s childhood which hint at domestic violence and emotional abuse.
The show doesn’t just lay down the facts. It is a well-informed celebration. A nostalgia trip that also looks forward as well as backwards. Thankfully lacking in sentimentality there is still much pathos. And more than its fair share of humour. We drift in and out of reality as we shift from designer Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s hospital room backdrop to Thames Estuary skyline, to rehearsal room, to stage. The switch from dialogue to music is seamless too. The cast excel at reproducing the Dr. Feelgood sound, complete with the rough edges that “didn’t just usher in Punk, but fucking invented it!” as Wilko would say.
It is fitting that the show concludes with an encore rather than a curtain call. After some gorgeous, slightly surreal moments, including a beautiful a Capella rendition of Leadbelly’s ‘Goodnight Irene’ at Irene Knight’s funeral, the dry ice billows from the stage and the cast launch into a trio of upbeat, uplifting, foot stomping numbers. The band are in full swing, replicating the huge feelgood factor of Dr. Feelgood with staccato precision and virtuosity – particularly House’s impressive blues harp playing.
“Death gives me a technicolour gaze” hollers Wilko. This company give a technicolour performance. The filmmaker, Julian Temple, described Wilko Johnson as ‘one of the great English eccentrics, a great national treasure waiting to be discovered’. Jonathan Maitland’s “Wilko” is its own little treasure. Well worth discovering.
WILKO at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch
Reviewed on 7th February 2024
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Mark Sepple
Previously reviewed at this venue: