This is no murder mystery, no ‘The Mirrorball Crack’d’ – the killer couldn’t be more obvious if he were twirling a moustache. And this is a show so unsubtle that it’s almost a surprise that he doesn’t.
The characters are almost uniformly one-dimensional, drawn in crude, glitter-speckled strokes, a comic strip writ large. But all the actors know exactly what it is, ensure their performances are as broad as the characters are shallow, and encourage the audience to buy into just how ridiculous – and fun – the show can be.
Any playwright who tries to take on the life of Anton Chekhov must surely be on a hiding to nothing, as their work is most likely going to compare to the Russian dramatist’s own work. Writer/director Linnie Reedman, whose Dorian Gray I enjoyed at the Leicester Square Theatre in 2009, thus has her work cut out.
The understated black set, bare save for an ornate sofa, provides a subdued backdrop to characters that are anything but in William Whitehurst’s misfiring farce, running as part of the London Festival Fringe.
Jonathan Hansler’s wild eyed, manic maverick author Daniel McBain is a maelstrom of unpredictability. From the moment he steps on stage in silk dressing gown and wielding a sink plunger, his aura of danger permeates the confines of the Leicester Square Basement.
As McBain’s counterfoil, French translator Charles Duprey, Peter Glover cuts a lonely, tragic figure, whose floundering hesitancies bring a much-needed sense of pathos.
Completing the cast, it is Ewa Jaworksi’s nymphomaniac muse Caroline who is the hardest to pin down. Jaworski is able to portray her myriad mood swings, turning from vulnerable to predatory on a sixpence.
But this character is supposed to be the fulcrum about which the whole play pivots, and yet it feels the least well written of the three. She feels defined more by McBain’s fictions, which may be intentional but comes to naught when there is nothing else for the audience to relate to.
In its short, single act form, Angela Unbound feels like a play that needs more space to explore themes with the effectiveness it desires. Whether we would want to spend any more time with these characters, though, is debatable.
“It’s not about the sex,” croons Miss Polly Rae in one of this burlesque show’s uproarious musical numbers. “It’s the eyes and the teeth, the shimmy and the shoes.” She should possibly have added props and sets, which do so much to make her new show a sumptuous visual spectacle.
William Baker’s direction and Ashley Wallen’s choreography combine to find every available innuendo from the pop songs lovingly crafted into saucy striptease routines. Whether as a nun sashaying to It’s a Sin or writhing in bedroom negligee to a slow, sensual version of Michael Jackson’s Bad (reworked as one half of a dirty phone call), Rae displays a sense of humour every bit as naughty as the gradual removing of clothing.
Rae is at her best when delivering her own vocals. When she and her backing troupe, the Hurly Burly Girlys, resort to lip-synced vocals, it is often so that they can work on a routine that, in its freneticism, loses some of the charm so evident throughout. An exception is a brilliant routine with Polly and her girls bedecked in kimonos and parasols, performing to a medley of Japanese Boy, Hung Up, Umbrella and Naked in the Rain, which combines sauciness and musicality in a way that defines so much of the evening.
Less successful are the Hurly Burly Girlys’ solo performances. Each demonstrates accomplished ability in both dance and comedy. Unfortunately, in most cases, the choreography does not do them justice. They could each do with routines that better showed their abilities rather than just displaying their assets.
The basement of the Leicester Square is transformed into a Victorian parlour-cum-bordello to provide the perfect setting for Linnie Reedman’s retelling of Wilde’s gothic fable.
Matthew James Thomas is suitably boyish as Dorian, who starts off a rather louche aesthete, before surrendering his soul upon acquisition of the infamous portrait, here represented by an empty frame. Clearly at his most comfortable when seated at the piano, his performance of Joe Evans’ accomplished musical numbers add weight to proceedings.
In the first act, though, the character of Dorian is secondary to the events surrounding him, especially the battle for his attentions between the infatuated portrait painter Basil (a fine performance from Ilan Goodman) and Vincent Manna’s Lord Henry, who succeeds in tempting Dorian down the path of debauchery that will ultimately prove his downfall.
And it is Manna’s performance that makes this play. While his performance is prone to play as if to a much larger room – a fault of the production as a whole – he nonetheless mixes the comedy of Wilde’s best lines with the strictures of the English upper-class effortlessly.
Where the direction does excel is in imaginative use of its small cast to cause Dorian to see ghosts at every corner. With more touches like that, this good production could be improved further.