Review: Wilko at the Queen’s Theatre: You don’t have to be a Dr Feelgood fan to get this classic story of love, life, relationships and loss. 

Entertainment / Sun 11th Feb 2024 at 10:54am

By Neil Woodbridge

THE Queens Theatre in Hornchurch is a beautiful concrete and glass extravaganza built in 1974 and reminiscent of Thurrock’s Thameside Theatre.  Greeting me with open arms and a warm friendly orange glow she swathed me in a feeling of expectation.

Wilko and I go back a long way – we never actually spoke, we never played together, and I was too young to have seen the fantastic Dr Feelgood live. But I had passed him in the street often and had seen him in my local GP surgery in Westcliff-on-Sea. We were indeed, neighbours. He was a private man when not performing and when he propped the local bar up having a bevy; he didn’t like to be approached. Just a nod and a smile.

I saw him perform solo in Southend in the 80’s and remember well his amazing ability to make one guitar sound like two – a unique system of playing both rhythm and lead at the same time. 

In the heady days of the 1970’s Wilko played guitar for Dr Feelgood; a serious blues band from Canvey Island with a unique sound and great riffs. Some say they started the punk revolution, and many famous musicians site them as an influence.  

Their sound was a combination of; Wilko’s Fender Telecaster crunch, deep bass with Sparko, strong drums hit by Bandsman and a deep and meaningful voice from Lee Brilleaux. They burned bright and put Canvey and Essex on the musician’s map.

Wilko was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2015 …Julian Temple made a fantastic film about him called ‘The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson’ while he embarked on a farewell tour. He recorded a farewell album with his friend Roger Daltrey – which gave him his biggest ever success. At what was meant to be his last ever gig there was an amateur photographer who happened to be a surgeon; who rang him up and said “I think I can help you”  and herein lies our story.

Back to the play! 

As the lights go up and a figure appears on the stage with a beautiful single Halo light above them – I am shocked – there is my neighbour Wilko standing on the stage!

Actor Johnson Willis is truly astonishing as Wilko. He had clearly studied the man intently and looked and sounded exactly right – even his body movements reminded me of the man I’d seeing leaping around on stage and skulking out of my GP’s office.

The script is incredibly sensitive but truthful to the story. The play engrosses you into the life and complex thinking of this highly educated man with a strong working class Essex accent. 

A beautiful moment occurs when Wilko and his wife Irene (played by Georgina Fairbanks) slip seamlessly into the language of Shakespeare as ‘Romeo and Juliet’; but all the time the harsh realities of his life coming to an end are tackled and amiably supported by Georgina Field, Jon House and David John. The story manages to evoke all our emotions of pathos, love, joy and the pure genius that lies within the man. 

You don’t have to be a Wilko fan to get this classic story of love, life, relationships and loss. 

Finding good actors is always critical but with this play you also needed ones that can play instruments. Willis’s attempts at playing in the great man’s style are really good – having three other actors there who can play drums, bass and sing is pure joy; with great versions of the Feelgood’s songs. Jon House’s mouth organ playing was on point – I was carried away to the blues pub bands of my childhood and there were moments where it felt more like a gig than a play.

God Bless Wilko and his unique ‘Englishness’. All praise to Jonathan Maitland for a fabulous script, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s Direction and all the creative team at the Queens for a fabulous visual and sound treat.

Altogether a perfect night out at a great local venue – go see and get ready to dance out of your seat, cry your tears and laugh at the  wonder of ‘Wilko’.

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