A casualty first of the pandemic and then of the whims of so-called theatre saviour Andrew Lloyd Webber, Dorian: A Rock Musical now has a limited run on Stream.Theatre as a newly filmed digital production. Beginning its life as a reading on Oscar Wilde’s birthday, it then ran as a cabaret-style show on the South Bank, and was finally developed into this musical – it should have been performed at The Other Palace this month, following its first cancellation due to lockdown. Written & directed by Linnie Reedman, with music & lyrics from Joe Evans, Dorian is of course based on The Picture of Dorian Gray, but catapulted into the modern music industry.
On the death of his grandfather, Lord Kelso, Dorian is free to enter the world and escape the label of ‘bastard’ that has thus far kept him confined him to the house simply reading books. In pursuit of love, he starts writing music and is soon introduced to Lord Henry, while sitting for a portrait by Basil Hallward. Lord Henry puts the idea of eternal youth into Dorian’s still naïve mind, and then sets about immersing him in a world of sin & hedonism. During a trip to the theatre, Dorian becomes enraptured by the actress Sibyl Vane (playing cross-dressing Rosalind in As You Like It at the time), and ends up returning again & again, believing them to be in love. But can the real Sibyl ever live up to the roles she portrays onstage? And what will that portrait look like ten years down the line..?
I’m a bit on the fence about this show. Whilst I do applaud the resistance to simply retelling the original story as a musical (though rock music & gothic tales do go together), I think it could definitely do with some tweaking. If you just decided to watch it without reading the synopsis, you probably wouldn’t realise it had a modern setting until about 30 minutes in; costume & set both have a mostly Victorian aesthetic, and the use of the term ‘bathtub gin’ would only bring it to the early 20th century. Considering the universal & timeless the central plot is, the way it is presented here does sometimes feel quite awkward. Throwing in random, gratuitous expletives and references to social media (“social followers”, though..?) can’t do all the work in making it feel contemporary – and casually dropping in a mention of being signed to a record label isn’t effective storytelling.
It’s also stretching is slightly to label it a “rock musical” – as a rock fan myself, I can’t say that there is a huge amount of music in there that is recognisably rock. Leather trousers & the occasional electric guitar do not a rock musical make! Having said that, I think it would probably have a greater effect live & in-person, as it could give a grittier & more dynamic edge. The music certainly feels like the more developed aspect of the piece, though for me there are slightly too many songs; I’d prefer a little more talking in places, so there’s exposition through dialogue rather than song.
What makes the show come alive are some of the performances. John Addison & Fia Houston-Hamilton provide wonderful support as Lord Henry & Sibyl Vane; their vocals are superb, and you can see how infatuated both their characters are with Dorian. It is Bart Lambert who really stands out in this production, with an arresting performance as the youthful rockstar. Over the course of 100 minutes Lambert takes Dorian on an emotionally charged journey from melancholy innocent, to hedonistic artist, to repentant adult – and on top of that puts in some terrific vocal performances (the harmonies in several numbers are real highlights).
My verdict? An interesting take on the Oscar Wilde classic, probably better suited to live & in-person shows – Bart Lambert gives an arresting performance as Dorian Gray.
Dorian: A Rock Musical is available via Stream.Theatre until 12 August 2021.