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The Tragedy of Dorian Gray – at Drayton Arms Theatre

I’m sure we all have that friend who never seems to age. I know I have. He’s approaching 50 now but somehow still looks as young and vibrant as when I first met him just before his 21st birthday. I’m convinced, and have told both his wife and him, that somewhere in the hidden part of their house, there is a picture of my friend which is aging in place of him. A joke, of course, but this idea was the crux of Oscar Wilde’s philosophical novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Since being first published in 1890, the novel has been reviewed, adapted to a play, and filmed so many times that it’s difficult to think of a new way of presenting the story to the theatrical public. Writer Ross Dinwiddy obviously likes the idea of a challenge, and his play The Tragedy of Dorian Gray has recently opened at the Drayton Arms Theatre.

The Tragedy of Dorian GraySwinging London, 1965 and renowned, some might say notorious, artist Basil Hallward (Christopher Sherwood) is exhibiting his new work. As the saying goes, everyone who is everyone is present, including journalist, and lover of celebrity gossip, Mavis Ruxton (Heather Alexander) and rising TV star Alan Campbell (Conor Litten). However, the
undoubted star of the evening is actress – and bad girl made good – Sybil Vane (Chloe Orrock) who has arrived not only fresh from a recent win at the Oscars but with her new, much younger husband Dorian Gray (Maximus Polling). While Mavis and celebrity agent/fixer Harry Wotton (Jordan Louis) want all the news and gossip about Sybil’s life and career, Basil Hallward forgets everything and fixates on Dorian. He offers, some might say begs, the handsome young man to let him paint his portrait, and when Dorian agrees, Basil produces an image of stunning perfection that is not only a wonder to behold but over the next 34 years will have a profound effect on the lives of Dorian, and everyone he knows and holds dear.

My first thought on entering the auditorium was ‘smoke’. I have no problem with smoke being used in a production,  it can create a great atmosphere and really add to a scene. Unfortunately, in this show, it was, in my opinion, over-used. Yes, in the seedy nightclub it made sense to have a smoky atmosphere, but in other locations – such as Sybil and Dorian’s living room, that much smoke wafting around would be a definite cause for alarm. The effect wasn’t helped by the sound from the smoke generator, which was horrendously loud and intrusive whenever it went off during the scene changes. This was unfortunate as it was a distraction when I wanted a few seconds to contemplate the previous scene and think ahead to what was going to happen next. Because a lot of things did happen. Ross Dinwiddy – who also directed – has produced a really good version of DG that keeps all the important elements of the original story but adds new levels of detail that flesh out the main characters.

The show is long – first act 77 minutes, second 55 minutes – and I think, could have been trimmed a bit as there are moments when the pace feels quite slow. There were a couple of moments that seemed illogical to me in the story. For example, early on Basil says he would never exhibit the painting, but then works with Harry to hold a public unveiling. I also didn’t really understand why, when he was in trouble, Dorian turned to Alan for help rather than Harry who had been his fixer in many respects for a long while. I would also have liked to see a bit more development of Mavis who, I think, would initially have been more pivotal in helping Dorian’s rise to glory.

However, enough of my little moans and gripes. If I could write a worthwhile script, I wouldn’t be sitting here reviewing the work of others. The simple fact is that I really loved the story. The cast overall were good and full credit to both the costume and make-up designer for managing to age the characters while Dorian seemed to get younger as the years rolled by. Turning to the man himself, I was really surprised at my reaction to Dorian as a character. He started out as a sweet innocent young man – the type you could easily take home to meet mother – morphed into this total narcissist and eventually ended up as this tragic figure I actually found myself feeling sorry for. Whilst a lot of this was due to the writing, Maximus Polling has to take full credit for making Dorian the person he is. Polling really knows his character and is able to draw every aspect of it from the writing. Dorian knows exactly how to manipulate, cajole, tease his followers into doing anything he wants, and Polling really shows that skill off. This is particularly true in the second act with Alan where Dorian is asking/blackmailing Alan into doing something totally repugnant, yet by the use of his voice and gentle movements, Polling makes Alan’s final acquiescence totally believable. You can feel Dorian’s power and self-assurance growing as Polling brings out the darker side. The nude scene is a perfect example where Dorian demonstrates his total confidence in himself and his ability to control others. This is a wonderful performance from Polling that really fleshes out the character and makes the audience become his.

Summing up, whilst this production is not perfect, it is a really good adaptation of a classic tragedy. Good writing and strong performances make the story interesting and compelling to watch. I loved the ambiguity of the ending and as I left the theatre, I couldn’t help thinking that in many ways The Tragedy of Dorian Gray is a far older tale than Wilde’s book.  After all, given the chance, what would you do if offered that thing you most desire?

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

It’s 1965, the world has changed, and London is swinging…

In a studio in Chelsea, a young man is about to have his portrait painted. From there, Dorian’s story of fame, vanity, lust and corruption will take audiences on a twisted odyssey through heartbreak, betrayal and a touch of bloody murder.

Maximus Polling – Dorian Gray
Jordan Louis – Harry Wotton
Chloe Orrock – Sybil Vane
Christopher Sherwood – Basil Hallward
Conor Litten – Alan Campbell
Heather Alexander – Mavis Ruxton
Playwright – Ross Dinwiddy
Director – Ross Dinwiddy
Producer – Rich Bright

Tuesday to Saturday 19th October – 6th November at 7:30pm
Drayton Arms Theatre, 153 Old Brompton Road, London SW5 0LJ (nearest tube, Gloucester Road)


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