It might sound like a safe bet to christen a new theatre with a bit of Oscar Wilde, but this is a bold programming choice from artistic director Paul Stacey. Reading Rep theatre opens with Dorian, Phoebe Eclair-Powell and Owen Horsley’s eye-poppingly experimental adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. It’s a dizzying adventure that occasionally dips and falters, but absolutely always dares to dazzle.
The only subdued aspect of this production, directed with passion by Horsley, is Wilde himself. A series of slightly stilted biographical scenes, as well as a few key facts and figures, have been woven into Dorian’s story, tracking the events that led to Wilde’s trial, imprisonment in Reading Gaol and eventual exile in Paris. They slow things down and feel a bit forced in an otherwise instinctively theatrical production.
The rest of the show is a riot. Uneven, yes. A tad indulgent? Perhaps. But so very brave and original. Andro Cowperthwaite, Ché Francis and Nat Kennedy dart, shimmy and leap through designer EM Parry’s gothic playground of dangling picture frames. They play an explosion of glamorous and grotesque characters – some Victorian, some contemporary and some pure camp figments of the imagination. There are cabaret singers, nods to the TV series Pose, gibbering ghosts, Shakespeare riffs, soap parodies, all awash in sweat and sequins.
It’s a freewheeling homage to queer culture that initially feels fun, but is gradually laced with horror. Fran Levin’s stunning costumes warp and darken; a sharp suit is replaced with a dirt-encrusted bib on a dribbling old man. The performances become harder, fiercer and more frightening as Dorian’s life spent running towards beauty – and away from himself – turns ugly.