“It’s not good for one’s morals to see bad acting” is one of the lines that I remember most in this 90 minute one-act play. I assume that this line stuck with me throughout the production because it made me question whether the evening had somehow damaged my own personal morals, since some of the acting here was a bit amateur in my mind when compared to other London Off-West End fringe shows I’ve seen. Ironically delivered by the best performance tonight, Lord Henry Wotton (Harry Burton), it reminded me that fringe acting, rather like a bag of Revels, is full of delights and disappointments (seriously, who enjoys the coffee Revel?!).
The story, originally published in 1890, is adapted from Oscar Wilde’s novel of the same name. The Picture of Dorian Gray tells of the young, middle class gentleman Dorian Gray (Hugh John), who is the subject of a portrait painted by recently well-established artist Basil Hallward (John MacCormick). Hallward is seemingly besotted with Gray and declares the painting his best work. A friend of his is also impressed with the painting, but Lord Henry Wotton is rather less celebratory of Gray’s innocence, instead attempting to coerce him to become a more stereotypical arrogant young man like (presumably) he himself once was. What follows is an outward manifestation of Gray’s change in character to become not just the man that Wotton sees in him, but a somewhat darker individual altogether. Loved ones such as Sibyl Vane (Lizzie Bourne) are cast aside as Gray becomes a warped version of his former self, whilst the portrait retains his old youthful, innocent and vibrant nature.
If I see a play early on in its run, I often try to overlook the odd stumble over a line or wrongly timed stage cue, but there were just a couple too many in this show for me to forgive. The play itself opened nervously, with MacCormick rushing his lines at times and John speaking eloquently but without any sign of the youthful expression and emotion that his character initially demanded. He did in fact seem quite soulless. However as the play progressed this worked to his advantage – it became apparent that the seeming lack of any emotion behind the eyes was the perfect way to portray Dorian Gray by the end of the play. It was almost heartless and evil, exactly as I pictured Gray ending up in this tale. The problem with John’s performance is that the audience weren’t treated to any real light and shade in Gray’s personality, with only the more sinister, emotionally detached scenes performed with any real conviction.
The actor with the most professional consistency here was Burton. As the slightly arrogant yet intelligent Lord Henry Wotton, Burton came across as eloquent and in control of the dialogue. He paced his lines well, with appropriate speed and pause where it was needed to bring Wilde’s storytelling to life. The scenes between Burton and John were the best to watch, since the side of Gray’s character that John played best was the side that was encouraged by the Lord and not the artist Hallward. MacCormick unfortunately remained a bit amateurish throughout; his lines needed some more natural fluency to bring the artist’s tender nature out more in the scenes. Overall the dialogue between Hallward and Gray didn’t have the impact it should have done; everything felt muted and slightly dampened. In particular their final scene should have been much more emotional, but it was rushed through and the effect seemed lost on the audience.
The supporting characters overall did little to reinforce the performance. Bourne’s Sibyl Vane had some childish glee and at times added some light relief to the scene which was well received, and Lord Fermour (Michael Kingsbury) conversed with Wotton in a typically gentrified, upper class manner which was convincing.
Likewise the set and costume were unable to galvanise this production. Marcio Santarosa’s set design looked a bit like a patchwork quilt made with fabric swatches – it didn’t quite reflect the late Victorian in my mind but I get what he was trying to emulate here.
Overall, I left the theatre feeling slightly flat. Oscar Wilde’s life was anything but normal and definitely anything but forgettable, but unfortunately I can’t say the same about this adaptation of his novel. “How extraordinarily theatrical it would seem if one had watched it happen” states Gray (John) when contemplating the death of a character near the end of the play – if this were the case about The Picture of Dorian Gray then I confess I must have dozed off this time; extraordinarily theatrical is not how I would have described it.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is playing at White Bear Theatre until 23 May. For more information and tickets, see the White Bear Theatre website.