Watching C. J. Wilmann’s play The Picture of John Gray, it’s hard not to wonder how much of it is true. Quite a lot, it turns out. John Gray, a poor boy from Bethnal Green, grew up to be a poet, inspired Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (maybe), had an intense relationship with the writer (definitely), had relationships with other men and became a catholic priest in Edinburgh.
The play starts at the Vale – bohemian, at the right side of shabby and surprisingly domesticated – where Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon entertain friends. Oscar Wilde is expected but never turns up, the absent shadow / present ghost of the play. John Gray does turn up, as do Bosie and Andre Raffalovich. What starts as an evening of petty spats among love rivals and fragile egos turns into something much more interesting: the shadow of prosecution and burning desires (whether it’s love, god or beauty) become a heady mix and a worthy battleground for the souls of men.
The first scene feels uncertain and falls short of the sparkling wit expected in that company and the last scene comes twenty minutes after the scores have been settled but the middle section of the play captures something rare and delicate and beautiful. It’s ideas and art and touch and fear, all burning the mind and the heart. Gus Miller directs with a tender touch and Rosanna Vize has designed a world where small details carry long shadows.
Patrick Walshe McBride as Gray, all flashed youth and rosy lips, is ethereal and precise with careless abandonment. It’s a beautiful and bold balancing act, and McBride carries it with conviction bordering on blistering indifference. A young actor to watch. Christopher Tester as Raffalovich is an earthier presence, but with an undercut of insubordination. Tom Cox as Bosie is cool and detached, with the touch of death about him. Oliver Allan as Ricketts and Jordan McCurrach as Shannon are quite the double act, domesticity as an act of rebellion.
It’s an interesting sparkle of a world where, for a brief moment, ideas had substance and beauty could rule the future. The play and production capture that feverish burned-ash quality mixed with fear, desire and inner torment. The lights that burn brightest and all that. And then a firework in the sky burns some more.
Till 30 August at the Old Red Lion theatre.