Dorian Gray had to wish away his soul and put his portrait in the attic to keep his good looks. But today, a life of youth and beauty is only a good coat of make-up, a brief time under the knife, or a quick airbrush away. The self-promoting, digitally enhanced world of modern celebrity is a natural backdrop for The National Youth Theatre’s Selfie, which sells itself as “a radical retelling of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray'”.
Basil is no longer an oil-painting artist but a master of Photoshop who spends his days touching up snaps to create the perfect Facebook profile photo for his clients. The languorous aristocratic aesthetes of Wilde’s novel become trust fund babies and Hoxton trend-setters in tight shorts and waistcoats, their sports socks pulled up with garters, puffing away at pipes. They chase the next big thing but fetishise the past. A gold penny-farthing? “I’ll take two!” says Harry, stroking his well-groomed beard. A Google Glass monocle? All the rage, apparently. Inside this brash, Instagram-able hipster heaven, pretty young things do nothing much except drink out of vintage teacups and party.
When Basil is sent a selfie that he doesn’t need to touch-up he can hardly believe his luck. Having discovered the next sensation, he and his friend Harry parade their new play thing – a statuesque and female Dorian – for all to see. She snaps up ad campaign offers, promotion jobs and lesbian lovers instantly and, fearing the dream could end at any minute, saves her flawless photo to an iPad where it is left to fester quite horrifically while she soars.
Kate Kennedy, who towers over the entire cast, plays Dorian with all the coldness and attention-seeking childishness that the part requires but struggles to connect with the audience. In fact, despite flashes of real promise in the cast, there is never much chemistry where it matters most. The relationships between Harry (Dominic Grove), Basil (Ragevan Vasan) and Dorian which are so crucial to this play’s source never feel convincing and the brief, tragic romance between Dorian and Sybil Vane (Ellie Bryans) is so underdeveloped that we, like Dorian, barely bat an eyelid when she throws herself into the Thames. We just don’t care enough about anyone to really feel the tragedy at the heart of the play.
Selfie is vapid and superficial. It looks great, courtesy of Verity Quinn’s eye-catchingly original design and Simon Eves’ projected videos. It sounds great, too: the cast create live music on stage with muted trumpets, gramophones and thumping basslines; Ellie Bryans as Sybil sings songs she wrote herself with a beautiful, haunting voice and an air of Amy Winehouse; Kate Kennedy even plays jazz flute. But scratch away the shiny surface of this production and there is nothing all that interesting to be found underneath. It could be half as long and we would have got the idea. Brad Birch’s script strips the story of all semblance of Wildean wit and, despite a wealth of issues to explore from the fragility of stardom to the crippling low self-esteem of young people, Selfie ends up just as empty as the celeb culture that it mocks.