Shropshire Events and Whats On Guide

Shropshire Events and Whats On Guide

Theatre Review : The Picture of Dorian Gray

Chris Eldon Lee reviews European Arts Companies touring production of “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, which he saw at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn

This is not one of Oscar Wilde’s little trifles. It might begin with a cosy, civilized afternoon tea – but an irreversible plummet into hedonism, debauchery and the supernatural soon follows. I can quite see why the affluent and arrogant literati of the 1890s didn’t take kindly to it. The mirror to society was fully intended…though its reflection was so searing, even Wilde felt obliged to mist over the overt homoerotic passages a little in later editions.

His grandson, Merlin Holland, has now put some of them back in his stage adaptation of his granddad’s scandalous scenario; and Director Peter Craze makes light work of the task of telling the whole gory story with just four actors and a collection of empty picture frames. The audience is left to imagine the satanic deterioration of the Picture of Dorian Gray…and it works a treat. The simple stagecraft of drape, light and sound conjures up horrors beyond representational art.

Young, athlete Dorian has very youthful looks and wishes to keep them. So he enters into a dark, Faustian pact in which it’s his portrait that ages, not him. His natural arrogance further fuelled, he slides into a life of narcotics, finery and callous crime.

Guy Warren-Thomas’ portrayal grows with the gathering gloom. He seems a slight Mr Gray at first, but gains substance as decadence gets a grip and his predicament haunts him. It was a performance that snuck up from passive to riveting.

That leaves three other actors to play the remaining twenty parts…and it’s a remarkable achievement. I didn’t spot any great creative merit in the doubling (doubtless done on economical rather than artistic grounds, especially as the actors had to shift their own set) but the men in drag were funny enough as aged aunts and it was compelling to see a cast stretched so far without snapping.

Gwynfor Jones is cast in the suave, sophisticated and wonderfully witty part Wilde must have imagined for himself. There was certainly some Stephen Fry in the role’s DNA but Wilde’s witticisms and truisms fitted him perfectly. He’s utterly disparaging about Americans (always a crowd pleaser) and his little homilies are reliably entertaining. “In order to regain your youth, just repeat your follies”. Some of his society one-liners fell a little flat before the student audience members – but we oldies smiled.

Rupert Mason plays even more cameos and is at his best as what appeared to be a second-hand car salesman who’d drifted into being an actor-manager. “I blame the Bard for all my five bankruptcies”, he moaned. Which leaves a very spirited Helen Keeley to play the eight women who have yet to reach their dotage. She’s wonderfully awful as the theatrical starlet Sybil, playing Juliet on stage … and poignantly pathetic off stage as the petty actress who fatally falls for the lauded man who can only destroy her.

Altogether, it must have been a pretty tough assignment and European Arts Company made a jolly good job of it. The evil enveloped us as the evening progressed – and a tricky denouement was pulled off without any errant giggles from the stalls. Impressive, all round.