Dorian Gray, Sadler's Wells, London

Matthew Bourne's take on Oscar Wilde's story has strong performances but is hollow at the core
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Matthew Bourne has always said that he enjoys revisiting his back catalogue. It's just as well. His Swan Lake returns to Sadler's Wells this Christmas.

His Cinderella, set in the Blitz, will be revived next year. Dorian Gray, which last August broke records as Edinburgh Festival's best-selling dance event ever, has just begun a second UK tour. Overseas, his work is Britain's biggest dance export.

It's a schedule that should allow for some useful tinkering. If something isn't quite right the first time, there are chances to tweak or reshape. Part of the interest as a critic is being able to chart those changes, be they large or small, over the lifetime of a show. Alas, the flaws in Dorian Gray, a free re-imagining of the 1890 novel by Oscar Wilde, are proving deeply embedded.

Bourne's anti-hero is a good-looking barman on the make who becomes the poster boy for a new men's fragrance (christened "Immortal", as it can only be). Plucked from obscurity by a top photographer (whose rapacious body language with a camera is surely inspired by David Hemmings's fashion snapper in the Sixties film Blow-Up), adopted as a toy boy by a Devil Wears Prada editor, introduced to a world of bisexual parties where the drugs are handed out like canapés, he starts to believe his own hype: that personal beauty is all.

On the surface, the piece bears some resemblance to Bourne's best work. It updates a classic narrative to shed light on contemporary mores; it switches the gender of key characters in interesting ways; it's design-led and visually witty, and peppered with humorous dance-history references. Yet no amount of slickness and style can mask the fatal absence of a moral core. Sure, Wilde's original is about vanity and depravity: how an obsession with the purely aesthetic can lead to the death of the soul. But by creating a satire on today's fashion world that deals in the trashy and disposable, Bourne's show becomes trashy and disposable too. It's a circular trap that neither Bourne nor his composer Terry Davies have managed to escape.

There are some memorable set-pieces. The first, when Richard Winsor's Dorian is spotted then seduced by Jason Piper's saturnine photographer, fairly crackles with tension: the mouse is snared by the cat, toyed with, then turns the tables and takes control. The amplified sound of a camera shutter gains almost sinister force as, with each click and scrape, Dorian grows more flattered, less shy, shedding his inhibitions along with his grip on conventional morality. It's the best sustained use of a sound effect I've come across in a long time (all praise to Paul Groothuis for that). The choreography, too, is unusually athletic for Bourne, and rather good.

Other individual performances have merit. Michela Meazza is mesmerising as the icy fashionista who claims Dorian as arm candy, yet keeps her sexual options open. Christopher Marney transmits painful insecurity as the ballet dancer Dorian hits on – a move he quickly regrets on discovering a man even more vain than he is.

However, Bourne's jokes at the expense of classical ballet strike a false note. While it's moderately amusing that Dorian's radio-alarm wakes him with Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, a parody of male dancing at Covent Garden is a shamefully cheap joke. And the lapse of taste doesn't stop there. Whereas Oscar Wilde's writing was a triumph of circumnavigation in not actually mentioning sex, Bourne's staging is totally unzipped, and much the poorer for it. Hard as it may be to imagine being bored by seeing beautiful people in multiple congress, you will be.

Continues at Sadler's Wells, EC1 (0844 412 4300) to 19 Jul. Tour details: