Pros: An almost uniformly strong cast carries the production with great enthusiasm. Plus there are good songs and music, and innovative audience interaction.
Cons: A lacklustre performance from the title role lets down an otherwise excellent show.
You can tell the moment you enter the theatre that this is going to be no ordinary performance. The space is filled with a grand piano, a double bed, a sofa, armchairs and other Victorian pieces of furniture – all of which looks particularly surreal against the backdrop of the graffiti-strewn walls which form the set for the evening’s earlier performance of Trainspotting. Rather than sitting on the dozen or so regular theatre seats, you’re invited to sit scattered about the room. Some audience members occupy the sofa right in the middle of the stage area; three more on the seating behind; many have to sit on the floor.
With the audience so integrated into the physical space, it’s little surprise that they’re frequently involved in the action. In the party sequence the whole audience stands to play the guests, as a few are enticed into dancing with the cast. When one takes some time to remove her bags as she clears the dance floor a cast member mutters, “Who brings luggage to a party?”
This musical version of Dorian Gray features a strong, effective set of songs sung to the accompaniment of a violinist and the able Felicity Sparks at the piano, who also plays Dorian’s landlady. As with much of the action, the songs are sung as the actors are scattered throughout the audience, so it’s not unusual to find a refrain being sung directly to you alone.
Blair Robertson is effective as the painter Basil Hallward, but he’s overshadowed (as indeed he should be) by the outstanding Thomas Judd as Lord Henry Wotton, who – both through the strength of his singing voice and the exuberance of his personality – dominates every scene in which he appears. He also has the ability to exclaim Wilde’s now well-known aphorisms as if they were entirely new, which is a real talent. The excellent Felicity Kirwin enthusiastically plays a wide variety of female roles with great variety and panache; her entry as the music hall star Sybil Vane is particularly affecting, as she sings a poignant solo song accompanied only by a softly-plucked acoustic guitar.
The only lacklustre performance is that of Dorian himself, performed by Samuel Woodhams. In my opinion he neither looks nor sounds the part; he speaks his lines in a sullen monotone, showing none of the charm or charisma that is supposed to catapult Dorian Gray to the upper echelons of society. Could be a different interpretation but it didn’t work for me.
In many ways this is a musical based on the idea of The Picture of Dorian Gray, rather than a direct exposition of the novel. With modern language, both in the spoken dialogue and in the songs, it makes little attempt to stay faithful to the age in which it is set. It comes across more as a reflective piece on the ethics of Victorian morality and hypocrisy than a period drama, but it’s none the worse for that.
For those unfamiliar with the original, this would be a hard story to follow. The decline of Dorian from ingenue to rake takes place in the space of a couple of scenes, with Dorian an all too willing participant. Sir Henry’s manipulation is barely needed as the protagonist launches himself into his life of hedonism.
Most curious of all, though, is the reveal of the portrait at the end. This is the portrait which is supposed to show all the debauchery that has failed to make its mark on Dorian’s ever-youthful face. It’s shocking enough which makes the other characters recoil in horror from the degradation now depicted in it. And yet when we see the portrait, it’s exactly the same as it was when we first viewed it in the opening scene. Unless a cast member inadvertently missed the opportunity to switch it for an updated version, there’s something here that really doesn’t make sense.
Author/Director: Dave Spencer
Composer: Jo Turner
Producer: Another Soup
Booking Until: 12 April 2015
Box Office: 0207 226 8561
Booking Link: https://kingsheadtheatre.ticketsolve.com/shows/873528848/events