Musical Review: Unspeakably unlovely


Arts Theatre, London

Hats off to David Reeves. It's quite an achievement to produce a musical inspired by Oscar Wilde that contains not a shred of wit, but somehow the composer-cum-lyricist has done just that with his adaptation of The Picture of Gray. On an occasion of this kind, to quote The Importance of Being Earnest, it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one's mind. It becomes a pleasure.

Readers may recall the film The Tall Guy, in which Jeff Goldblum plays an actor who stars in Elephant!, a toe-curling musical version of The Elephant Man, full of lines like "I'm a lady with a beard, but look at him, he's really weird". Like Elephant!, possesses not only a doggerel- ridden book (one that happily rhymes Aunt Agatha with anathema) but a supporting cast of Victorian Eastenders who appear to have blundered on stage from a Jack the Ripper theme evening, chanting "This is my red letter day, I've seen the face of Mr Gray" (no mean feat given the flatulent smoke machine). What Elephant! had that doesn't - exclamation mark apart - is a catchier score.

Wilde's timeless morality tale pitches art against life and innocence against experience, though you would be hard pressed to glean that from Reeves's adaptation. It doesn't help that himself (Marcello Walton) is no oil painting. The part demands, in the early scenes, a malleable, boyish naivety. What Walton brings to it are the Spaniel locks and chubby gracelessness of a fading Australian soap star (Henry Ramsay from Neighbours, circa 1991).

Nicholas Pound does better as Sir Henry Wotton, the louchc aristocrat whose patronage leads astray. Pound has the finest voice of a vocally weak cast, as well as out-dandying the lot of them, but even his swagger can't impart life to the world of Aubrey Beardsley's Yellow Book. Seldom have the Nineties looked less naughty.

Perhaps the oddest thing about is its treatment of homosexuality. Rumour has it that the producers were eager for this not to be a "gay" show (a pair of male buttocks were removed from the original poster). And, for 95 per cent of the evening, they appear to get their wish. 's trips to the docks remain strictly heterosexual: the only sailor in this piece is the straightest man on stage. Basil's love for remains sublimated. And then, midway through Act 2, Sir Henry explodes into the most extraordinary song, based on Oscar Wilde's speech at his trial, about "the love that dare not speak its name". It comes from nowhere, like a storm from a clear blue sky, raining down references to Plato and Jonathan and David, and it couldn't be more risibly inapposite if he'd broken into a chorus of "Sing if you're glad to be gay".

It's now five years since Children of the Silent Night, the legendarily bad musical about the blind-deaf-mute schoolgirl Helen Keller, was inflicted on the public. Nothing will ever compete with that, but tries pretty hard.

Arts Theatre, London WC2 (0171-836 2132)

Adrian Turpin

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