The seedy clubs of Soho, art exhibitions of Chelsea and the swinging Sixties in general are excellent backdrops for a tale of excess, vanity and sexuality. Ross Dinwiddy’s production feels sumptuous. The Rialto Theatre in Brighton lends itself well to the piece, predominantly filmed in black and white. There is so much about this production to like; with a couple of alterations, I truly believe this play could be extraordinary.
In general, the performances are strong, with particularly accomplished portrayals of Basil Hallward and Alan Campbell from Christopher Sherwood and Tom Taplin, respectively. Sherwood’s Basil is a cynical Northerner with distinct David Vaughan vibes. It suits the productions well and I found him thoroughly believable. To me, he was the tragic loss of the story, not Mr Grey. I know this story well, and have never considered Basil to be a blameless character; Sherwood made me believe him to be so.
Taplin’s Alan is an anxious geek; correlating enough with the stereotype to be recognisable but not so much as to offend. He is another innocent, corrupted by Dorian and Henry and Taplin finds beautiful moments of truth in Campbell’s decline. Heather Alexander deserves a mention too — for her performance as Mavis Ruxton — the only character not to have a direct parallel in the novel. Her acid tongue and scowling facial expressions are a personification of The Press and it could be argued that she is the villain of the piece.
There are useful changes to the original story which facilitate it’s transfer to the sixties, seventies and nineties. References to David Bailey, Mary Whitehouse and others aid the audience in fitting it to the periods used. Some of the characters appear to be aged up- from the novel, others down and Mavis entirely invented. When Oscar Wilde was writing, he couldn’t make overt references to sexuality so Dinwiddy does it for him — even though the first part of the play is set in the sixties, when homosexuality was still a criminal offence. Purists could find this adaptation problematic but I feel that the changes made only enhance the story.
There is not a huge amount of set to speak of, but what is used is appropriate and fitting. Costume, props and music all set the scenes well; particularly the music, and I enjoyed seeing how each of the character’s fashion sense changed with the decades. Lighting is very effective too; not an easy task when you’re lighting people of different skin tones and using a monochrome colour scheme.
I can’t help but think, however, that despite their skill, Maximus Polling and Kace Monney are a little miscast as Dorian Grey and Harry Wootten. I don’t quite believe either of them in their roles- though this is not their fault. I feel the character of Dorian Grey must have a certain ethereal quality which simply isn’t Polling’s casting. He is attractive in a boy-next-door way; unfortunately, it’s just not the same. Dorian needs to be unusual. Monney has a very intense quality about his eyes but it’s important to the plot that Harry is significantly older than Dorian — it affects the power balance of their relationship. Monney’s baby face will serve him well in the long run, but it just doesn’t suit Harry Wootten.
Though most of the production is a masterclass in adapting plays for film, the stage combat and knife work that would look great onstage is a bit clunky close-up and though the writing is generally very good, the passages directly lifted from the novel don’t always fit with the modern language.
This production took place at a previous Brighton Fringe and I’d be very interested to see it if the piece gets a third iteration. I think with a couple of small changes it could be exceptional.
The Tragedy of Dorian Grey runs online and in person from 28 May to 27 June 2021. More information and tickets can be found at Brighton Fringe online.