Selfie (Ambassadors Theatre)
The National Youth Theatre presents a modern take on The Picture of Dorian Gray as part of its latest West End rep season
When Oscar Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was published in the 1890s, the St James Gazette said it was a matter for the police, not a critic. Possibly in a spirit of wanting to renew that initial shock value, the National Youth Theatre has commissioned "a radical retelling" as part of its two-month season at the Ambassadors.
The resulting show, Selfie, written by Brad Birch with the NYT Rep - this is the senior wing of the company, the 18-25 year-olds - is admittedly more wild than Wilde, but it seriously misses the essence of Oscar and substitutes the innovative high society aroma of beauty, hedonism and degeneracy with an all-purpose ambience of clubbing, drugs and bisexuality that wouldn't shock a maiden aunt from Tunbridge Wells.
And of course instead of a beautiful painting in the attic we have a neutral disposal selfie of the gilded youth, here played by the extraordinary (and super-tall) Kate Kennedy, whose radiant and voracious personality not only overpowers the evening but renders the idea of self-preservation in art meaningless; this splendid androgyne is literally indestructible.
What happens to the narrative in the last half hour is virtually incomprehensible, but the avenging Jack Vane (Fabian McCullum) is at least clearly marked as he comes from a working class background. His sister Sybil (Ellie Byrne), the object of Dorian's desire, is a nightclub singer, not an actress, while the two characters who represent other aspects of Wilde - the infatuated artist Basil Hallward and the dissolute aristocrat Lord Henry Wootton - are flattened into nondescript normality.
Ragevan Vasan's Basil, who "touches up" pictures, and Dominic Grove's fun-loving Harry are virtually interchangeable: while Kennedy's open Dorian roams free, the discussion around his/her destiny and attributes is subsumed in some lurid, juicy nightclub scenes with louche music and a lot of instrumental virtuosity.
Paul Roseby's production certainly gives his raw talent an abundance of opportunity for self-expression. The trouble is that they've dragged Wilde towards them rather than gone towards him, a fatal misunderstanding of the nature of contemporary interpretation and appropriation.
Selfie continues in rep at the Ambassadors Theatre until 12 November 2014