What could be more fitting? A show about one Irish wit, whose 150th anniversary this happens to be, reopens the theatre dedicated to another. But somehow I don't think George Bernard Shaw, music reviewer and playwright, would have been too complimentary about Mike Read's musical dealing with the vilification of his compatriot, the flamboyant Oscar.
Let's start with the good news. The Shaw Theatre in Euston, then attached to St Pancras library, put on some earnest work in the 1970s and '80s. In its place there is now a hotel and conference centre-cum-theatre, a revived Shaw, which is part of a new company, Off West End Theatres. It's a nice enough auditorium, with good sightlines, and theatres less well-placed have made themselves indispensable, but why is the stage lighting so poor? Why is there a sense of make-do-and-mend with a bland Peter Blake as Oscar coping with a mic that goes from boom to zero? Let's hope the technical resources improve with use.
The show itself probably won't. If you take Oscar as a subject - a prodigiously innovative writer with a brilliant line in aphorisms - you put yourself in danger of odious comparison. What does Mike Read do? He rhymes, not just the songs, but the dialogue too. This is almost impossible to do without becoming risible. If a supposed young Wilde conquest is called Edward Shelly, what would you expect his legs to turn to in the great man's presence? All together now...
Nine actors tell Oscar's sorry tale in front of a palm court chamber orchestra which does a valiant job with sweeping Victorian-style melodies and a couple of punchier music-hall-inspired numbers. Oscar himself fills us in on his life-story up to the point where scandal enters it in the shape of Lord Alfred Douglas, Bosie, played by boyish, blond Jonathan Tatum. It is the last years, with a few anguished flash-backs from prison and nods to literary successes which make up the rest of the evening.
Bosie's father, Lord Queensberry, who drags Oscar through the courts, is given a malign presence by Christopher Corcoran, but it is Anita Louise Combe as Oscar's long-suffering wife Constance who retrieves something worthwhile from the mess. She has a terrific voice and invests the most banal lyrics with heartfelt emotion. Of the many - too many - musical numbers "He Can't Take the Memories" is given touching melancholy by Combe and "Grief Never Grows Old" has the memorable simplicity of a pop song. But on the whole it would have been better to let Oscar rest in peace.
- Heather Neill