“It’s not a jukebox musical,” Wilko Johnson (1947-2022) (Johnson Willis) insists, “it’s a play with songs”. For a show about a musician and songwriter, there were indeed not very many songs in the show, the drum kit, guitars and harmonica on stage looking somewhat underused. But the fans in the audience who might otherwise have felt short-changed (the most committed of them, I suspect, will not have come across anything in the storyline they won’t have known about already) are treated to a brief reminder of the most popular songs in the Dr. Feelgood repertoire.
That band, founded in 1971, is still going, although none of its original members are still in it – Wilko, or John Wilkinson, to give him his ‘proper’ name, left the band in 1977, and as the narrative would have it here, he fell out with Lee Brilleaux (1952-1994) (Jon House), the lead singer, who does at least get to put forward his own perspective on what happened. Whether Wilko left of his own accord, or by mutual agreement, or was (proverbially) booted out, there’s no doubting his forthrightness. The production allows sufficient breathing space for the audience to decide for itself whether he was too stubborn for his own good or if it was simply better for everyone involved that he parted company.
The show starts with the second thing Wilko was most known for – his terminal cancer diagnosis in early 2013. In that same year, as the play would have it, he played a series of farewell gigs, but at his last one, his friend Charlie Chan, a surgeon by day and a photographer of rock gigs by night, suspected that something wasn’t right: it was, Chan believed, medically impossible for Wilko to perform with the energy and stamina that he did if he really only had months at most left to live. An eleven-hour operation to remove his tumour in its entirety ensued, and his decision to refuse chemotherapy in the first place was vindicated.
A strongly opinionated man, Wilko was fascinated by astronomy (“Not astrology – that’s b*ll*cks”) and had no interest in organised Western Christian religion, but during a trip to Japan, he was curious about the architecture and atmosphere of the Buddhist temples he visited. For all the music-making over the decades, the thing that Wilko was best known for was, on an international scale at least, playing the part of a mute executioner in the first and second series of the television adaptation of Game of Thrones, appearing in four episodes.
Willis’ Wilko has a magnetic and engaging stage presence, and the other four actors share, give or take, about two dozen characters between them (just don’t ask me what the difference was between ‘Woman in Street’, ‘Nurse Woman in Street’ and ‘Nurse’). Class divisions were a running theme – at school, at home, and at university, he was derided for not routinely pronouncing the ‘h’ in words that contained an ‘h’, and other supposedly improper forms of speech. When he later joined Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Wilko found his new bandmates to be too swanky and chic to his liking.
A steadily paced production, it doesn’t take a minute longer than it should to tell its story, and, rather like the man himself, is never overly sentimental, even in its poignant spoken ending. The show’s actual ending, after we’ve been treated to a few of Dr. Feelgood’s greatest hits, sends the audience out with a smile. There are some wonderful displays of actor-musicianship, and in the end, it’s an Essex story in an Essex playhouse for an Essex audience. A worthwhile watch.
Review by Chris Omaweng
In 2012, Wilko Johnson, the iconic rock star and founder of legendary Essex band Dr Feelgood, was told he had inoperable cancer and a year to live. Refusing all treatment, he decided to spend his last months living meaningfully: seeing the people, places and things which meant most to him during his remarkable life.
Then, a miracle happened…
This world premiere production of a new play – a mixture of words, rock ‘n roll, and quotes from the man himself – tells the amazing, uplifting true story of Wilko, the Canvey Island legend.
Dates: 1 – 24 Feb 2024