Oscar Wilde’s plays have a special place in British theatre so a stage adaptation of his only novel has a lot to live up to. To find the right tone for the telling of Wilde’s scandalous version of the Faust legend, to add songs and music that light up the themes of “love and death”, and to present it in a way that can really grip an audience in a small studio theatre is an enormous undertaking. Sadly, this version playing at the Riverside Studios until 10 May doesn’t quite succeed in pulling off the three card trick. There are some high points – a couple of fine performances and some spooky moments – but it is too uneven and fails to deliver the gothic moment of horror that ought to come when we finally get to see ‘the portrait’.
Dorian Gray, a languid performance by Jack Fox, is a very beautiful young man who has his portrait painted by his friend, Basil Hallwood. He falls under the spell of the urbane and decadent Lord Henry Wotton – the excellent Joe Wredden delivering some Wildean gems with relish – and, after a disastrous love affair, devotes himself to sensual self-indulgence. He remains young and beautiful while the magical portrait, locked away in the attic, displays the consequences of his wicked life.
This tale is told by Mr Isaacs, the manager of the theatre in which Gray falls disastrously in love with the actress Sibyl Vane, played by Daisy Bevan, and this device of introducing a narrator who is also a minor character in the story works well, particularly in the hands of Fenton Gray, a seasoned performer who knows how to hold an audience’s attention. It’s a pity that some of the actors could not match his stylish skill in using this space with its awkward sightlines and unforgiving acoustic. One wonders if they are used to TV and film cameras rather than the demands of a live audience in a difficult setting. There is also an uneasy variation of tone – some actors deliver effective moments of Victorian melodrama while others use the sort of naturalistic style that we are used to from TV soaps. There is even a moment of Victorian burlesque, announced by Mr Isaacs as “Lady Windermere and her fans”.
The songs, delivered to a combination of live piano and pre-recorded instruments, are atmospheric rather than dramatic and some of the ensemble singing needs more work.
The story is set in a dimly-lit smoky space with a rear platform. The set looks good and works well in a studio with no stage or curtain and allows the actors to interact with the audience. Scenes begin with white dust sheets being removed from the stage furniture but knocking over objects on desks under the sheets rather spoils the atmosphere.
There is a poignant story of love and ‘fear of aging’ to be drawn from ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ but this isn’t it. Despite moments of heartfelt sadness and fleeting pictures of opium den decadence, it doesn’t quite add up to a satisfying evening of theatre.