The Picture of John Gray is an unconventional play about an unconventional man.
Writer C. J. Wilmann says that he first became familiar with the story of Dorian Gray on a flight to Cuba and became fascinated by the flamboyant individual Oscar Wilde. He begs us to “resist” the temptation to delve into the world of Wilde for fear of us being enwrapped in the tragic bohemian mystery that was his life. Wilmann’s passion and knowledge on the subject of Oscar Wilde comes across clearly, and I daresay I’ll be reading up a lot more. However, this isn’t a play about Oscar Wilde. This is a play about John Gray, a man whom Wilde became infatuated with before effectively hijacking his identity for the subject of his infamous and controversial novel. This is the untold story of the poet John Gray who is left to go his own way.
Oscar Wilde is almost the epitome of how the mighty can fall. His demise into destitution and poverty is told to us by the small cast of five throughout the play, but it is never the focal element; it is a backdrop. It’s Wilde’s imprisonment for ‘gross indecency’ following his affair for Lord Alfred Douglas (Tom Cox) that prompts Gray, played by Patrick Walshe McBride to make some important decisions in life. In particular, his relationship with French poet Marc-André Raffalovich, played by Christopher Tester, is elegantly acted. While there were moments when it felt a bit lifeless and dull, for the most part the emotion feels real and it is difficult not to get drawn into their lives. The intimate atmosphere of the theatre allows this, almost like you’re citizens of Paris. As Gray and Raffalovich gaze out towards the Parisian skyline, it’s like you’re shaded by their “shiny new” Eiffel Tower.
Comic relief is provided primarily by Charles Shannon (Jordan McCurrach) and Charles Ricketts (Oliver Allen). McCurrach, in particular, gives a strong performance in his role. Following his public affair with Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie to his friends, adds an extra dimension of interest. He’s almost a spanner in the works as he is so intrinsically linked with both Oscar Wilde and John Gray. Cox takes Douglas’ flamboyant character to heart. At times, it’s overdone (think Rik Mayall as Lord Flashheart in Black Adder) but for the most part, Cox makes his character perhaps the most interesting of them all.
A small, somewhat unusually shaped stage surrounded on two sides makes set changes tricky. However, use of props and clever direction by Gus Miller means the usable space is effectively transformed without breaks in the action. Sure, you’ve got to use your imagination a bit, but that’s not difficult with Wilmann’s strong script and scatterings of black comedy. At times, the musical interludes showing a transition of time was a bit loud for the small venue with respect to the generally quiet tone of the play. Masking, likewise, is an issue but it’s mostly unavoidable and there is sufficient movement to ensure that it’s never prolonged. Nevertheless, I would recommend sitting in the seats at the corner to minimise this.
The Old Red Lion Theatre is amongst the more unusual I have been to. Let’s make it clear: this isn’t an extravagant West End theatre. As you walk down Islington High Street, blink, and you’ll miss it. The theatre is actually above a noisy pub resplendent with big screen Sky Sports. Fortunately, I can reassure you that the magic of soundproofing completely eliminates the chances of any tense moments in the performance being punctuated with raucous applause each time a team score. On a different note, the pub has a rather fine selection of real ales and allows you to take drinks into the theatre.
This is a play that deals with challenging and controversial topics that are as relevant now as they were a hundred years ago, if not more so. Homosexuality within the Church is a contentious issue that is provoking fierce debate. As such, this is a timely tale and, irrespective of one’s own sexuality, it’s difficult not to sympathise with the characters. If nothing else, it’s sure to get you thinking. A clever and subtle narrative with differing perspectives provided from each of the characters climaxes to a powerful, bittersweet ending that prompted prolonged applause.
So, with Hurricane Bertha bearing down on our Sceptred Isle, perhaps it’s time to pack up the barbeque and head to the theatre.
Review by Samuel D Lickiss
The Picture of John Gray – a new play by C.J. Wilmann
In the summer of 1889, Oscar Wilde began a love affair with a young man whose beauty seemed to defy Time itself. Months later, he would use this man’s surname for his most infamous creation. Immortalised in The Picture of Dorian Gray but soon ditched by its author, John Gray is left to grow up and become his own man… whoever that may be.
But meanwhile Oscar is playing out his own downfall on the most public of stages. He is imprisoned for acts of ‘Gross Indecency’ with other men, and the community of poets and artists he had mixed with is fractured as a hunt for Sodomites sweeps London. As around him the most resilient of relationships are pushed near breaking-point, John must choose sanctuary in the purity of faith or the dangerous arms of a man who offers him love.
‘We all hide – the only choice is where.’ Based on a true story, C.J. Wilmann’s challenging new play is an unconventional love story about secrecy, denial and compromise.
Cast: Oliver Allan, Tom Cox, Jordan McCurrach, Christopher Tester and Patrick Walsh McBride
Crew: Director – Gus Miller, Designer – Rosanna Vize, Lighting Designer – Matt Haskins, Sound Designer – Chris Walters, Stage Manager – Eve Machin, Producers – Chris Walters and Hannah Groombridge
The Picture of John Gray
Performance Dates Tuesday 5th to Saturday 30th August 2014, 7.30pm
Saturday matinee at 3.00pm
Sunday matinee at 2.00pm
The Old Red Lion Theatre, 418 St John Street, London EC1V 4NJ
Running Time 2 hours 5 minutess (including interval)
Box Office Tickets are available from oldredliontheatre.co.uk and 0207 837 7816,
priced at £15 (full price), £13 (concessions).
Saturday 9th August 2014