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The Picture of Dorian Gray: Sin, Seduction and Second-Act Standouts

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński

The staging of The Picture of Dorian Gray at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley is as much an exercise in beauty and artistry as the play’s contents.

In a classical milleu of self-decaying paintings, sin and seduction, Malvern Theatres treat their audience to an adaptation which, despite briefly stumbling on a few occasions, is jam-packed with the kind of decadence Wilde was best known for executing in this literary masterpiece.

At curtains-up, it is immediately evident that although the set-design is somewhat sparse, it has the potential to be well-utilised. With splashes of blue and white decorating the walls, and the central feature of an ornate green leather chaise longue, the staging encapsulates the pomp and circumstance that central character Lord Henry Wotton is used to. The room, which functions as two homes, a dressing room and a seedy nightclub prompts the reader to use their imagination more than a high-end West End affair, the actors bring each setting to life in varying ways which demonstrate that good things can come in small packages.

The stand-out performers of the evening come in the form of Jonathan Wrather (Lord Henry Wotton) and Gavin Fowler (Dorian Gray). Whilst other performers err on the side of melodramatic, Wrather and Fowler find the perfect balance. It is evident Wrather steals the first half of the performance from right under the feet of the company. With his light, comic touch on the character, Lord Henry is a character who elicits both humour and pathos – which arises in the form of his lofty, grandiose statements on life. By the play’s second act, Gavin Fowler provides Gray with the devilishly handsome, tempting demeanour that Wilde fans know best – characterising Dorian as not only the boy led astray by beauty and intrigue, but also by his own strong desires to seize the youth he so currently enjoys provides the character with the right amount of complexity that Wilde intended.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is, ultimately, a message of morality. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” says Lord Henry towards the end of the second act. And, indeed, there is no better message, let alone Biblical verse which encapsulates the key themes of the play better than this. Particularly within the second act, the moral dilemmas of the play are demonstrated through a variety of means – Dorian’s seduction and subsequent rejection of performer, Sybil Vane, Basil’s reluctance to obey his muse and turn away from the painting he created, the blackmail of Ellen Campbell which leads to tragic circumstances. The play compels the audience to both recognise and reconcile these dilemmas. We know what is right, but simultaneously, we cannot help but be propelled by the narrative as told by Dorian’s eyes.

Where the play seemingly falls short is concentrated into one scene which stands out from the rest. Lord Henry and Dorian’s visit to the nightclub not only juxtaposes their previous jaunts to the theatre, but is particularly jarring in terms of the stage, which is transformed with pulsing red and black light, wailing music and a hands-on dance scene. Whilst attempts to transform the traditional narrative of the play are admirable, one cannot help but sense the scene is wildly unrealistic compared to its counterparts, somewhat poorly executed and thus falling short of the mark. Although the play’s melodrama can be forgiven – after all, it would not be Wilde without some level of spectacle – the scene appeared odd given the context of the remainder of the play – almost as if it was lifted out of a production put on by a physical theatre company.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a successful production which touches upon the themes Wilde intended in equal measure. Devoting equal time to ideas of beauty, sin and tragedy, by the close of the curtains, the audience is left chatting excitedly about the events of the last two hours.

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