James Ley on Wilf, his road trip drama with a difference

Even though it was conceived before the pandemic, the themes of loneliness and connection in James Ley’s play Wilf should make it feel very much of the moment, writes Joyce McMillan
Michael Dylan as Calvin in Wilf, by James LeyMichael Dylan as Calvin in Wilf, by James Ley
Michael Dylan as Calvin in Wilf, by James Ley

Everyone loves a romantic story for Christmas, preferably with a little magic thrown in; but still, it takes a bold theatre – and a bolder writer – to mark the season with a tale involving a lonely man, and his passionate love affair with a bashed-up old Volkswagen called Wilf. The theatre – not surprisingly – is the Traverse, never known for its conventional Christmas shows; and the playwright is James Ley, a writer never shy of testing a few theatrical boundaries.

It’s just four years this autumn since the Lyceum Theatre staged its studio production of Ley's play Love Song To Lavender Menace, about the legendary 1980s Edinburgh bookshop that became a centre for the city’s growing gay rights movement during that decade; two years since the play graduated to the theatre’s main stage, and began the process of adaptation for the big screen. And James Ley remains fascinated by the business of exploring the myriad untold stories of gay history, as it gradually emerges into the light; one of the many projects that have kept him busy during lockdown, for example, is work on a new musical – which he hopes will be staged in 2023 – about the astonishing life of William Drummond Stewart, a Scottish aristocrat and nobleman of the early 19th century who led a remarkable life as a homosexual adventurer in North America.

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When it comes to Wilf, though, Ley is exploring entirely in the realms of imagination; and he hopes the play, set to open at the Traverse in early December, will strike an even stronger chord with audiences than it might have done before the pandemic, when he first pitched the idea to Traverse artistic director Gareth Nicholls.

“I think it’s essentially a play about loneliness, and about queer loneliness in particular,” says Ley, reflecting on his central character, a single gay man called Calvin who has recently emerged from an abusive relationship. “The thing about Calvin is that he has been trying to learn to drive forever; and when – after about 104 lessons – he finally passes his test, he begins to realise how much he’s going to miss his driving instructor, the ever-patient Thelma. And it’s at this point that Wilf enters his life; a bashed-up old car that he buys for £500 on Gumtree, and that somehow becomes the main object of his affections, at least for a while.

“Wilf wasn’t actually that easy a play to write,” adds Ley. “It’s funny and light-hearted, and yet it touches on some themes that have only become more serious during the last two years – themes to do with loneliness, and connection, and belonging or the lack of it, and the mental health issues that affect people as a result. I lived alone through the pandemic lockdowns myself, and I know how that felt, and the new patterns of loneliness and connection that emerged.”

Ley was born in Edinburgh in the late 1970s, and grew up in Fife, where he soon became involved – via his school – in the Scottish Youth Theatre, moving on in 1995 to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, where he trained as an actor. After graduation, he lived for a while in both Manchester and London, combining acting work with a continuing interest in IT and communications; he even worked at Gumtree itself, when it was only a tiny start-up.

During his London years, though, his mental health began to suffer; and in the mid 2000s he returned to Scotland, and gradually began to find his voice as a playwright and theatre-maker. In 2012, he and Caitlin Skinner – now artistic director of Stellar Quines – launched the Village Pub Theatre, a grassroots Edinburgh initiative which produced rehearsed readings of dozens of short plays by local writers over the next half-decade; and by the time Love Song To Lavender Menace premiered in 2017, Ley had become a familiar figure on the Scottish playwriting scene, writing for A Play A Pie And A Pint, the Glasgay festival, and Catherine Wheels Theatre Company, among others.

“I was so fortunate that I went into the first lockdown, early last year, with several commissions to work on, that would keep me busy. With some other writers, I also set up an online group called the Pomodoros, writers working from home, and we would meet without fail at 7am every weekday morning, and work together on our writing – half-hour sessions with short breaks for coffee and chat – for an hour and a half, each day. It’s been an amazing discipline, and I think we’ve all found it incredibly supportive.

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“I also still occasionally do communications work, mainly for the NHS, and I did some of that during the pandemic as well, which was a fascinating experience in many ways. Increasingly now, though, I am able to make most of my income from my writing; and I want to keep on developing new skills in various aspects of theatre, for the future.

“As for Wilf – well, the play has been through seven drafts, over the last couple of years, and now I really think it’s ready. We have a terrific cast, with Michael Dylan as Calvin, Neil John Gibson as a whole range of other characters, and Irene Allen as the lovely, long-suffering Thelma. Does Wilf speak? Well yes – but only through Calvin, his alter ego and other half. And I’m not going to say another word about it, because I don’t want to give away too many spoilers. I just hope people will come and see the show; and I hope it’ll make them laugh a lot, and maybe cry a bit, too.”

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Wilf is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, from 8-24 December, www.traverse.co.uk/whats-on/event/wilf

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