Review: A Picture of Dorian Gray (online)

As users of social media we’re all on a quest for likes and new followers, or the perfect filter to hide our imperfections and make us look good to the outside world. And now the team behind the critically acclaimed murder mystery production What A Carve Up!, which streamed last autumn, have taken this idea one step further to create a spellbinding modern-day adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s tragic tale, A Picture of Dorian Gray.

Writer Henry Filoux-Bennett has brought Wilde’s classic bang up to date with this digital reimagining which explores the relationship between beauty and morality. Co-produced by The Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre, New Wolsey Theatre, Oxford Playhouse and Theatr Clwyd, this production tells the story of Dorian Gray, a young, attractive social media influencer desperate for likes and followers. When he attends a theatre fundraiser thrown by Lady Narborough, Dorian’s friend Basil offers him a gift: a new app with a filter to ensure his perfect online self never ages, and that his beauty will never fade. But as Dorian’s mental health begins to suffer and he lashes out at those closest to him, he soon learns his new gift is in fact a curse. 

What A Carve Up! Director Tamara Harvey returns to take the helm, and once again does a wonderful job of telling this compelling tale. She again blends a number of styles, combining interviews with digital effects, for example the use of overlays of text messages and twitter posts and FaceTime-style videos, to create a Black Mirror-esque show which is part movie, part documentary, part vlog.

This is an incredibly polished play with high production values and lavish cinematography courtesy. Holly Pigott’s set design is certainly impressive, in particular Henry’s library (his outfit, also designed by Pigott, is equally memorable), and there’s a fun little shoutout to What A Carve Up! that eagle-eyed viewers may spot during the fundraiser. Harry Smith’s sound design is incredibly effective at building up tension throughout the piece, while Jared Zeus’s original song is simply beautiful.

The star-studded cast includes Fionn Whitehead, Alfred Enoch, Russell Tovey, Emma McDonald, Joanna Lumley and Stephen Fry. Fionn Whitehead is no stranger productions which have a lot to say about the digital age we live in, having previously starred in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, and he really excels as Dorian Gray. He’s endearing and shy to begin with as Dorian tries to win over followers and the love of Sybil Vane (Emma McDonald), and then as the cracks begin to appear he reveals a nastier, more spiteful side. Alfred Enoch does his best to steal the show as Dorian’s friend Harry Wotten, wonderfully charming and sharp as he injects humour into the piece. He’s outlandish and confident, but gives a glimpse of his more sensitive side during his interview when he hears something doesn’t want to. As software developer Basil Hallward Russell Tovey really comes into his own as the production nears its climax during his confrontation with Dorian. Emma McDonald really shines as theatre-lover Sibyl Vane, lighting up the screen during her performance at the fundraiser and with her Shakespeare monologues. She gives a heart-wrenching performance as Sibyl’s theatre debut doesn’t go quite as planned, and is incredibly vulnerable during a showdown with Dorian. Elsewhere Joanna Lumley can do no wrong and exudes sophistication as Lady Narborough. Like Alfred Enoch she is responsible for many laughs within the show, notably when Dorian gives Lady Narborough a lesson in social media. Stephen Fry rounds up the cast as the Interviewer, helping to progress the story with his probing questions. 

Once again Henry Filoux-Bennett has created a wonderfully compelling story with a razor-sharp script that’s all too relevant with people turning to social media to connect with others during the lockdown. This is a thought-provoking production which has a lot to say about social media, not only about the desire to be popular but also the detrimental effect it can have on mental health. It deals with the pressures on users to appear perfect online, particularly poignant considering apps such as instagram have been linked to young people taking their own lives.

An incredibly creative retelling, A Picture of Dorian Gray brings Oscar Wilde into the 21st century with a bang and features a wonderful cast and incredible performances. Bold, imaginative and gripping right from the very start, this stunning production is one of the best shows you’ll see this year. Although you might just think twice before posting that next instagram photo.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A Picture of Dorian Gray runs until 31 March. Tickets for the production can be purchased via pictureofdoriangray.com

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