DORIAN GRAY IS BACK. AND THIS TIME SHE’S A GIRL.
I am usually too humble about my exiguous visual gift to dare remonstrate with designers, but in this case would plead, tears in my eyes “Ditch Basil’s Act 1 beard!”. Ragevan Vasan does his best to carry it off, huge black excrescence that it is, but the effect is not lessened by the baffling fact that the artist’s friend Harry (Dominic Grove) also has one, and in the next scene yet another character is luxuriantly black-bearded. Possibly this is to indicate that they’re all Brick Lane hipsters and fashion-followers (if you hadn’t already guessed that by the fact that a chap in a girl’s gymslip and monocle is mending a penny-farthing bike). But I am sure Oscar Wilde would have something to say about one beard being a misfortune, three carelessness…
Sorry. But it is Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” which inspires this collegiate creation by Brad Birch and the National Youth Theatre Rep company, running alongside their Macbeth in the annual, enterprising and wholly praiseworthy rep season at the Ambassadors’. Last year they did an excellent production of James Graham’s Tory Boyz, and there is never any shortage of enthusiasm and unruly budding talent. But this one doesn’t quite get there: though it is a neat idea to modernize the tale and make Dorian a young woman who has her head turned by her own beauty and gets corrupted into the modern equivalent of Wildean excess: modelling, wild-childing, illegal drugs, big money earned from celebrity and marketing.
At its core – possibly part of its very inspiration – is the promising, statuesquely tall and strikingly attractive Kate Kennedy as Dorian. Wilde’s artist Basil Hallward becomes an expert photo-shopper who beautifies people’s Facebook pictures; in her case, he has had to do nothing but light her, and treasures the remarkable result. Which, of course, in a nifty bit of projection and adjustment , appears in a screen at the back becoming harder, sourer, and eventually hideous as Dorian’s corruption develops. She becomes ever warier of her iPad as she checks it after each betrayal, seduction and murder: Kennedy carries this well, from initial naive excitement at being taken to cool parties to callousness, brittleness and final despair.
There are problems, though. One of them is that the script is mainly plonking – only occasional faintly Wildean lines like “Lovely is where you go when Beauty has exhausted you”. And “People love you. Can you imagine how profitable that is?”. Another is that in the first act the corrupter – Harry – is played so preposterously, such a manic, gropey, pawing little horror, that you can’t believe this tall beauty would follow him anywhere, let alone to a party in The Hashtag Bar.
Another is that in the second act – possibly to soak up as big a cast as possible – there is too much confusing side-plot about urban regeneration, affordable housing, and someone called Jasper going broke; and that the quite striking character of Sybil Vane’s brother (Fabian McCallum) is not used as helpfully as he could have been. On the other hand the (lesbian) seduction of Sybil herself is well done, and there is a real spinechilling thrill in creating her as a Winehouseian dark-jazz chanteuse (songs by Ellie Bryans, who plays the part with moving conviction). Stuart Wilde is good as the bastardly branding-guru who eventually – dontcha know it, this is yoof talking – gets a safe Tory seat in Parliament. And the final disintegrated face on the screen – video designs by Simon Eves – is splendidly nasty. Must give the gorgeous Ms Kennedy nightmares when she thinks about it….