THEATRE / Distorted reflections: Paul Taylor reviews The Picture of Dorian Gray at the Lyric, Hammersmith

The Picture of Dorian Gray comes with a heavy and elaborate frame in Neil Bartlett's new version at the Lyric, Hammersmith. Wilde's novel about the beautiful youth who sells his soul in order to swap places with his portrait and so live as an unchanging work of art is not given a direct dramatisation here. Instead, we watch a group of Wilde's friends and a couple of hired assistants as they engage in a semi-performed reading of the text.

The date is 13 November 1924, the 29th anniversary of a particularly traumatic and public humiliation suffered by the author after his downfall. The setting is the swanky suite at the Savoy where Wilde used to entertain boys. And the object of the strained get-together, apart from the commemorative one, seems to be a kind of group therapy. As Wilde's friend Ada Leverson (Maria Aitken) puts it, 'when we've all remembered, perhaps we'll be able to forget'.

The Pirandellian play- within-a-play format allows Bartlett to juggle with several layers of thematic interest. Too many, in fact. The most haunting, potentially, are the reflections on time thrown up by the contrast drawn between the story's hero, who lives outside time (for a time), and the author's friends and survivors, for whom time has hung heavily since Wilde's disgrace and death. As Aitken's splendid, frizzy-haired Ada says of Sidney 'Jenny' Mavor (Paul Shaw), now a suburban bank clerk and a composite of the boys who gave evidence against Wilde, 'For a few red lampshades, a few scarlet sins and a supporting role at the Old Bailey, three decades of living alone in Croydon - west Croydon]'

Their memories of Oscar are shaded with ambivalence. For example, the text of Dorian Gray slyly subverts its own cautionary story with a preface of aphorisms that flaunt the very aestheticism that meets its nemesis in the tale. That equivocation is bypassed here, with Dorian's downfall seen as a straight-faced dress rehearsal of Wilde's.

Distorted reflections of the novel are also worked into this 1924 meeting. Dorian is played by an imposing young Cockney guardsman (Benedick Bates) who has been rented for the occasion. This contrivance enables Bartlett to make points about class and gender. Unlike the maid (Joanna Riding) who's roped in to play Sybil Vane, the handsome Guardsman gets to dine with his nob employers.

Despite some fine acting (particularly from Bette Bourne as Reggie Turner / Lord Henry Wotton) and despite the lush underscoring of Nicolas Bloomfield's music, the play is fighting on too many confusing fronts to make a decisive enough impact. The problem of focus can be illustrated by one small but crucial detail: if you sit on the right-hand edge of the stalls, you can't even see the mirror-reflections that here represent the eponymous picture.

'The Picture of Dorian Gray' is at the Lyric, Hammersmith to 15 Oct (Booking: 081-741 2311)

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