In hits such as Swan Lake, Nutcracker! and The Car Man, Matthew Bourne showed his instincts for drama and character, for physical comedy, and for finding an offbeat angle on familiar stories about innocence, experience, love and death. His latest work, Dorian Gray, pushes those elements into darker and more cynical territory. Loosely based on Oscar Wilde’s biting gothic fable, this version tells of a young man who, discovered by a fashion photographer, is taken up by a glitzy media executive to become the poster boy for a new perfume, Immortal.
The prologue is a classic Bourne gag: Dorian (Richard Winsor) is woken by his radio alarm playing Tchaikovksy’s Sleeping Beauty. Next we see a photoshoot with Basil Hallward (wolfish Aaron Sillis), and a cast of models in skinny jeans and not much else, at the studios of queen bee Lady H (Michela Meazza). Into this glamorous corporate world wanders Dorian.
It’s a potent setup, but Bourne seems so wrapped up in the dramatic subtext that he neglects the material itself. Dorian looks like an underwear model even when he has just got out of bed; after his “transformation” to supermodel by the company beauticians, he looks like an underwear model in a sharp suit. The under-realised themes show up some threadbare choreography: lots of posing and pop-video formations. True, when Basil photographs Dorian, the duet cleverly suggests the charged eroticism of that transaction; but when they ditch the camera and get down to each other, it’s the choreographic equivalent of literary bad sex.
Two characters feel like missed opportunities. One is ballet dancer Cyril Vane (Chris Marney) – a vision of love when Dorian sees him on stage, but an airheaded narcissist offstage, who points his feet during sex and even dies in a beguiling pose. The other is a mysterious doppelganger (Jared Hageman) who haunts Dorian as he descends into a world of drugs and murder. With both, we feel on the brink of a dramatic revelation – but it never comes.
Lez Brotherston’s rotating set is wonderful, right down to the diamond skull that functions as a disco glitterball. The score, though, sounds like music for ads and elevators: serviceable, but annoying when actually listened to.
Ultimately, the piece is much more interesting for what it could do than what it does do – which is apt for a work about the mismatch between subtext and surface.