While incense sticks, red velvet curtains, finely crafted Victorian costumes and Commedia dell’Arte masks succeed in transforming the small basement theatre in Leicester Square into a sensory mosaic, the performance itself falls short of dramatic tension in front of its sensitized audience.
Ruby in the Dust’s re-staging of Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, follows Dorian’s character in his shift from a shy and vulnerable young man to a veritable Narcissus figure. We watch his downfall unfold amid songs of love and murder as Dorian becomes increasingly trapped in high society by the likes of his tempter, Lord Henry; by Basil Hallward, the portrait artist consumed by Dorian’s beauty; and by his lover, actress Sibyl Vane.
The show uses cabaret elements to drive the plot and enhance dramatic action and there are some fine performances from the six-strong cast. Cabaret artist Tamsin Shasha radiates with raunchy stage presence, and Kate Colebrook works well as Sybil and Leaf, as does Henry Maynard as Lord Henry himself. Recurring visual motifs are woven into the scenes, most notably the frame of Dorian’s portrait, which serves as a lens through which we scrutinize parts of the performance. The live musical sequences are wonderfully atmospheric and thoroughly enjoyable; so much so that they upstage the recorded sound which feels distracting and inappropriate by comparison.
Our relationship with Dorian, however, remains underdeveloped. It is only in the final scene that we begin to understand whence the social pressures that drive Dorian to such vanity emerge. It is a moment in which we are hopeful and aware of the tragedy at the same time. Yet throughout the evening we follow a different character with every scene, a different perspective in every moment. As a result, the directing becomes too concerned with atmospherics, with adjectives, not focused enough on the story, the action.
Despite its clever interweaving of theatrical elements and its sumptuous and satisfyingly dark content, the production fails to convey dramatic tension. It is a great exercise in atmosphere, but an adaptation with too little concern for its story.