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Blake and Combe worthy of praise in Wilde drama



Review by David Munro

LAST night (October 19, 2004), the newly refurbished, and very comfortable, Shaw Theatre re-opened with Mike Read’s musical, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the birth of the poet –dramatist Oscar Wilde.

Mr Read’s version of Wilde’s life and times has been given the imprimatur of Mr Wilde’s grandson , Merlin Holland, who has contributed a note to the programme emphasising that the intention is to show Wilde as a family man.

This the show attempts to do, skating over the more unsavoury aspects of his life and giving us scenes of his reading to his children and with his wife, Constance.

Nonetheless, the fact that he spent a great deal of his life apart from the family cannot be ignored, so the major part of the evening is, as one would expect, concerned with his relationship to Lord Alfred Douglas, the trials, his life in prison and the retreat to France away from his family.

All this is illustrated by little musical vignettes culminating in a choral credo in which all the cast join stating Wilde’s views on life and the future.

Does the concept work? Yes and no; there are strong performances from Peter Blake, as Wilde, and Anita Louise Combe, as Constance, a depiction of the Marquis of Queensberry, by Christopher Corcoran, which although dramatically strong, ignores the fact that the Marquis was as mad as a hatter, and a Lord Alfred Douglas, in Jonathan Tatum, who looks the part but somehow misses the evil deviousness of the original.

The musical score consists mainly of point numbers and ballads.

Unfortunately, my programme is missing the page listing the numbers so I cannot identify them specifically.

Peter Blake has a very haunting ballad to Alfred Douglas – Dear Boy - and Constance has two equally strong songs; the first before he goes to prison and the other during his period inside, which are beautifully sung by Anita Louise Combe, and which will be more effective when she does not have to struggle against the vagaries of the Shaw’s amplification system.

The action, directed by Mike Read, is played out on a bare stage in front of the orchestra with the simplest of props - chairs, stools and a table which have to represent, home, hotel rooms, mining camps, courtrooms, prison etc, a device which works well given the episodic nature of the script.

This really falls into two parts. The first act is a reasonably straightforward depiction of Wilde’s home and public life leading up to the trials and conviction.

The majority of the second act takes places during his incarceration and consists of flashbacks to other episodes in his life and his relationship with Douglas. It is the stronger of the two.

Had Mr Read been content to use straightforward dialogue and possibly more direct quotations from Wilde himself, the evening would have been more pleasurable and historically more accurate.

As it is, he lapses at times, particularly during the trial scenes, into rhyming couplets, some of which would sound out of place in a provincial pantomime, which gives an air of shoddiness and cheap claptrap to a lot of the episodes.

The cast work hard, doubling up as barristers, rent boys, prostitutes, members of Society and Wilde’s friends where necessary and are, on the whole, effective although I did find the ploy of the parade of rent boys at the trial, being, for the most part, played by one man with a change of hats, somewhat risible.

In short, the curate's egg – good in parts, although I did not find the sum of the parts added up to a satisfactory whole.

A lot of it is, however, worth preserving, in particular the performances of Peter Blake and Anita Louise Combe, and I will certainly buy the CD if one is produced.

In the meanwhile, the production as a whole cannot be entirely written off as there is enough in Mr Read’s concept to make an interesting evening if you are prepared to take the good with the bad.

I leave it to you to make your own mind up – you might find it a worthwhile decision.

Oscar Wilde - Book Lyrics and Music by Mike Read; Director, Mike Read; Costumes, Deboreh Bowen; Musical Director, Steve Innes-Etherington.
Presented by Mike Read in association with the Shaw Theatre.
CAST: Peter Blake; Anita Louise Combe; Christopher Corcoran; Jon De Ville; Jonathn Tatum; Sarah Redmond; Frank Owen; Craig Nicholls; Michael Strassen.
Shaw Theatre, 100-110 Euston Road, London, NW1 2AJ.
October 19, 2004.
Evenings: Tues – Sat 7.30pm / Matinees - Sat & Sun 3.30pm.
Box Office: 0870 033 2600.

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