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The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray cover photo on Stagedoor

If you had never read Oscar Wilde’s novella, The Picture of Dorian Gray, you would get a very odd impression of its themes and concerns from the team behind last year’s streaming success What a Carve Up! But hey ho, works of art should never be set in amber and their ability to endure is dependent on their plasticity. Hamlet survives not because it is a text set in stone but because it is an idea for a play that each generation remakes in their own image.

So, it’s easy to see why adaptor Henry Filloux-Bennett and director Tamara Harvey thought it would be a good wheeze to whisk Dorian (Fionn Whitehead) out of the 19th century and into the 21st century where he re-emerges as a callow young Eng Lit student turned social media influencer. It’s not a new idea: Brad Birch’s Selfie, produced by the NYT in 2014, relocated Wilde’s story to Hoxton’s tech savvy hipster community.

This team set about their task with enthusiasm and a starry cast that has Stephen Fry as a documentary maker interviewing the survivors from the wreckage of Dorian’s glittering, moth-like social media career. Joanna Lumley plays a braying socialite who claims to love art particularly “THE THEATRE” and who was party to Dorian’s meteoric and swift fall, and Alfred Enoch is the dandyish, deeply entitled Henry Wotton.

Alfred Enoch.

Some of the story is told through on-screen use of text messages, WhatsApp and Dorian’s vlog on his YouTube channel which is fun, if seldom a help to the viewer trying to piece together the narrative. The show makes clever use of the fact it is set during lockdown. In a smart touch, it inverts Wilde’s original idea of the hidden picture in the attic that reflects its subject’s inner rot and corruption while the gilded Dorian continues to swan about town more beautiful than ever. Here, using a filter created by software developer and self-styled artist Basil (Russell Tovey) means that Dorian remains forever a golden boy on social media, but must wear his pandemic mask out in public to hide his ravaged face.

It’s a neat idea, and the show has plenty of gloss and finesse despite its small budget. But while it’s easy to admire its inspiration, it feels lacking in perspiration and never digs beneath the surface glitter of the story to explore Wilde’s themes of art, beauty, creativity and decay. It doesn’t help that Whitehead’s Dorian never quite exudes the charm needed to make him such a figure of desire, or that the rest of the characters make decadence seem pretty damned dull rather than enticing. It looks good, but when you reach beneath the surface there’s nothing there.

You can watch The Picture of Dorian Gray online until Wed 31 Mar. Tickets here.

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Lyn Gardner

New tips and reviews every week. If you're looking for innovative theatre, you've come to the right place.
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