Dorian: A Rock Musical has some impressive moments but doesn’t exactly come of age

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dorian: A Rock Musical (based on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray): Filmed (directed by Julia Froud) in June 2021 and streaming from 16.7. to 12.8.2021 on Stream.Theatre (click here). (JPr)

John Addison (Lord Henry), Bart Lambert (Dorian Gray) and Robert Grose (Charlie Rose) (c) Stream.Theatre

Writer and Director – Linnie Reedman
Music (arr. and orch.) and Lyrics – Joe Evans
Musical director – Sophie Jugé
Lighting design – Jai Morjaria
Costumes – Belle Mundi
Movement director – Anthony Whiteman
Artwork – Alex Jackson Creative

Dorian Gray – Bart Lambert
Lord Henry – John Addison
Sibyl Vane – Fia Houston-Hamilton
Charlie Rose – Robert Grose
Basil Hallward – Lewis Rae
Lady Henry – Johanna Stanton
Mrs Leaf – Sophie Jugé
Adrian – Tristan Pegg

There are many individuals, no doubt just like me, afflicted with ‘Peter Pan Syndrome’ and we do everything we can do to hold back time, though of course physically it takes its toll (especially in recent depressing Covid times), mentally nothing has changed for me in several decades. It is thankfully not as extreme as the story of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s Faustian novel (his only one) published 10 years before his premature death.

Bart Lambert (Dorian Gray) (c) Stream.Theatre

Dorian Gray is the heir to his grandfather Lord Kelso’s fortune. He had disowned him and his mother but has recently died, however Dorian was prevented from going to his funeral since this ‘bastard child’ must be kept hidden away in his booklined study. We first see Dorian still mourning his dead mother by admiring her portrait in younger days and dressing up in a silk kimono, with some pearls round his neck and wearing makeup. He sings ‘Can You Hear Me?’ that he has written for her, and this is the first of a number of plaintive, introspective songs we hear. Since Dorian is an aspiring singer in this version there is something David Bowie-like here yet apart from his brief appearance at a rock show as the second act begins there is none of the ‘glam rock’ that you will read about in the publicity for this show.

Actually, when Dorian sings his ‘Song of Love and Death’ there is more of a hint of Latin Jazz and some dance rhythms in this particularly interesting number. Later we will hear the increasing influence of Kurt Weill on Joe Evans’s lyrics and music and this is especially when Lady Henry first sings ‘It’s Different This Time’ and then – after becoming more dissolute – ‘Devil’s Bargain’. At the very end there is a ‘trio when Dorian is haunted by two ghosts from the past (‘The Face of Death’) and subsequently Lord Henry reprises ‘Song of Love and Death’ over the dead Dorian during the Epilogue and by now the accompaniment has swelled into Les Misérables territory.

Essentially Linnie Reedman’s adaptation gives us the CliffsNotes of Wilde’s original whilst adding a modern twist. (I couldn’t help but think how much more glammed-up it could have been if we had seen Dorian-as-Marc Bolan whose own biography mirrored much of what Reedman showed us.) At a soiree Dorian encounters the painter Basil Hallward and Svengali/producer Lord Henry and both take a shine to him. Hallward paints Dorian’s portrait and on seeing it he declares how he would give his soul to always be young if his painting instead would grow old. This being Wilde there are layers of hidden meaning to his tale and this centres on the double life Dorian must lead to hide the truth, especially about his predilections: and of course, Wilde was particularly shining a light on the social hypocrisy of the Victorian age.

We see Dorian’s rise to social media sensation as lead singer of the ‘Black Hearts’ and also the fate of those he uses and discards along the way. These are Hallward, Sybil Vane (the actress Dorian becomes enthralled by) and Charlie Rose (the impressive Robert Grouse), who is not in the original story, but here is an impresario and MC. Dorian wants to be good, but it is too late and he is well set on his downward destructive spiral. In the second act some ten years later Dorian’s drug-fuelled hedonistic, dissolute lifestyle – as the corrupter or both women and men – begins to take its toll and he is increasingly obsessed by maintaining the deception and this causes him to murder (spoiler alert!) Hallward.

The cast of eight work hard and are mostly actors who sing a bit rather than genuine singing actors. Most impressive was Johanna Stanton’s Lady Henry and John Addison who brought a self-serving, haughty air to Lord Henry’s machinations and was suitably despairing at Dorian’s demise at the end. I read somewhere once how Bowie ‘gave the impression that two souls were looking out at you’ and that is perhaps something Bart Lambert brings to his equally androgynous and gawky Dorian. Lewis Rae’s softly spoken Hallward was as thinly sketched as most of the subsidiary characters but embodied how conflicted the artist was about the consequences of his art. Fia Houston-Hamilton’s ‘Lady Windemere’s Fan Dance’ needed a bit more work, but she was quite affecting as Sybil Vane. Dorian has become attracted to her when she appeared in boy’s clothes as Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. He was her ‘Prince Charming’ though he was more interested in her onstage than off, since for Dorian acting is ‘much more real than life’. Vane thinks he is her meal ticket to greater fame and fortune but when he rejects her she is found dead in her dressing room, though there is just a suggestion that Lord Henry had a hand in that. (It is for her that Dorian sings the impassioned ‘Song for a Dead Girl’.) Sophie Jugé (who is also the music director for the production) catches the eye as she comes in and out of the action as Dorian’s housekeeper Mrs Leaf who acts as something of his conscience down the years.

Reedman directed this herself and Dorian: A Rock Musical is described as having been ‘filmed at a secret location in the heart of the West End’ which was apparently ‘site-specific’. Though while some of the scenes, as well as Belle Mundi’s costumes, have a dusty timeless quality – neither nineteenth nor twenty-first century – others such as the theatre Sybil Bane’s performs at and ‘Club 27’ where we see Dorian partying have a school play look to them. It is interesting to read how the show began life as a reading at London’s Café Royal, in the same room that Wilde himself used to stage his own readings. A proposed run at the Other Palace was cancelled due to the first lockdown in March 2020 just two days before opening night. Now thanks to Ruby in the Dust Theatre company Dorian has finally got its world premiere – thanks to this Stream.Theatre filmed version (directed by Julia Froud) – which does what it can without any intrusive camera trickery to make a case for this new musical having a longer life, even if it will not be quite as ageless as the story’s protagonist.

Jim Pritchard

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