★★★★ | The Picture Of John Gray, The Old Red Lion Theatre, London

‘We all hide – the only choice is where.’

Based on a true story, C.J. Wilmann’s play is an unconventional love story about secrecy, denial and compromise.

In the summer of 1889, Oscar Wilde began a love affair with a young working class poet whose beauty seemed to defy Time itself. Months later, he would use this man’s surname for his most infamous creation. Immortalised in The Picture of Dorian Gray but soon ditched by its author, John Gray is left to grow up and become his own man.

Meanwhile Oscar is playing out his own downfall on the most public of stages. He is imprisoned for acts of ‘Gross Indecency’ with other men, and the community of poets and artists he had mixed with is fractured as a hunt for Sodomites sweeps London. As around him the most resilient of relationships are pushed near breaking point, John must choose sanctuary in the purity of his faith or the dangerous arms of a man who offers him love.

I’ve always been ambivalent about Oscar Wilde, finding his works amusing and sparkling with genius but also annoyingly pompous and at times grating. I had a little trepidation about this play but I was quickly proved wrong. This is a very well written and staged play with a strong storyline and a moving and emotive theme. The five young actors portray the circle of Victorian gay men with convincing panache and although there are Wilde-like moments in the banter within the script, this is so much more than a story about the effect of Oscar Wilde but more a depiction of what must have been a terrifying time to be gay.

The two leads, Patrick Walshe McBride and Christopher Tester, are outstanding in their performances and are ably supported by the rest of the cast on a stark stage set with a backdrop of an oversized fragment of a painting of a young man. Tester’s powerful performance (as Gray’s lover. Andre Raffalovich) moved me close to tears and Walshe McBride subtly takes the viewer through Gray’s evolution from foppish young poet through to a wiser, more measured man. These are definitely actors to watch out for.

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This is a play that is well worth seeing, with major themes that are still relevant today but equally as important, it’s an entertaining, moving and often comedic play. Whether you love, loath or are indifferent to Wilde is irrelevant. This is a great piece of theatre.

The Picture of John Gray runs until the 30th of August 2014
There are also various post show events:

Post-show talk with Martin Bowley QC, legal barrister and prominent gay rights campaigner, Tuesday 12th August
Post-show Q&A with the cast and crew, Wednesday 13th August

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Post-show open discussion on Oscar Wilde with CJ Wilmann and special guest Neil McKenna (author of The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde), Friday 15th August

Buy tickets here: http://www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk/the-picture-of-john-gray.htm

About the author: Chris Bridges
Chris is a theatre and book obsessed Midlander who escaped to London. He's usually to be found slumped in a seat in a darkened auditorium.