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The Picture of Dorian Gray – Barn Theatre | Review

The coronavirus has been such a disaster for theatres up and down the country,” Lady Narborough (Joanna Lumley) tells The Interviewer (Stephen Fry) in this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, possibly one of the most contrived lines in an online production over the past year, and yet it is undeniably true. The level of collaboration the Barn Theatre in Cirencester has done with other venues is impressive – the production team alone also includes people from the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, the Oxford Playhouse and Theatr Clwyd in Mold, north-east Wales.

Fionn Whitehead
Fionn Whitehead

This isn’t the first time The Barn Theatre has taken source material from a previous generation and remodelled it to become a story for contemporary times. Dorian Gray (Fionn Whitehead) retains an outer beauty even as his own behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre. Basil Hallward (Russell Tovey) is not a painter, but rather a software engineer, and therefore the ‘picture’ of the play’s title is really a selfie that has been taken by Gray. And of course, the selfie is perfect.

The production slightly overdoes it with the background sounds, which seemed to run almost constantly, thereby reducing (if not obliterating) over time whatever dramatic effect it may initially have had. I found it far too distracting, getting in the way of the dialogue, which was largely unproblematic, even if I should have kept a tally of how many times Gray tells one of his own friends to “f— off”. But that’s vanity in the digital era for you.

Whitehead’s Gray maintains a degree of relative calm even when angry or evidently frustrated – he tends to seethe with rage rather than explode with a fit of fury. The show is part-drama, and part-documentary, with scenes dramatizing events being described by way of recollection. Gray is, or rather becomes, a social media influencer (‘influencer’ being a term one can look up elsewhere if needs must), always and forever grateful for his growing number of followers, and repeatedly telling people who already subscribe to his YouTube channel… to subscribe to his YouTube channel.

Sibyl Vane (Emma McDonald) makes a fairly brief appearance, but it is nonetheless pivotal: a fellow social media sensation, she becomes Gray’s girlfriend, but the parting of the ways comes swiftly after an embarrassing incident. Completing the list of characters is Harry Wotton (Alfred Enoch), who has less of a role here than he does in the novel, and a horse who has less than a minute of screen time (if I recall correctly) but is worth mentioning anyway, if only for the fact that she is called Rachan Wonderful La Dolce Vita-Bella.

For theatre regulars, there are references to other productions, including other online lockdown shows, to enjoy spotting. The key addiction here is not opium but social media, where the ever-present demand for more online content can ultimately have negative effects on people. Gray is portrayed here as a second-year university student reading English, which allows the production to explore issues surrounding, amongst other things, mental health in lockdown, cyberbullying and conspiracy theories, which are highly topical but also verge on detracting from the main story.

It’s an ambitious project. Steadily paced, it’s not nearly as witty as Wilde, but it’s a story of our times, and worth investing ninety minutes to sit through. A fresh and imaginative production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Based on the novel by Oscar Wilde, the production is written by Henry Filloux-Bennett with direction by Tamara Harvey, set and costume design by Holly Pigott, assistant direction by Eleri Jones, Benjamin Collins as director of photography, sound design and original music by Harry Smith and original song by Jared Zeus.

LISTINGS
THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY
Co-production by Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre, New Wolsey Theatre, Oxford Playhouse & Theatr Clwyd
Based on the novel by Oscar Wilde
Dates: 16-31 March 2021
Tickets: £12
Writer: Henry Filloux-Bennett
Director: Tamara Harvey
Set & Costume Designer: Holly Pigott
Assistant Director: Eleri Jones
Director of Photography: Benjamin Collins
Sound Design & Original Music: Harry Smith
Original Song: Jared Zeus
Cast: Alfred Enoch, Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley, Emma McDonald, Russell Tovey, Fionn Whitehead
Web Site: pictureofdoriangray.com

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