The Picture of John Gray

C.J. Wilmann
Old Red LionTheatre

Tom Cox as Lord Alfred Douglas, Oliver Allan as Charles Ricketts, Patrick Walsh McBride as John Gray, Jordan McCurrach as Charles Shannon and Christopher Tester as Andre Raffalovich Credit: Miriam Mahony
Oliver Allan as Charles Ricketts, Patrick Walsh McBride as John Gray and Jordan McCurrach as Charles Shannon Credit: Miriam Mahony
Christopher Tester as Andre Raffalovich and Patrick Walsh McBride as John Gray Credit: Miriam Mahony

When Oscar Wilde began his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas a handsome young man called John Gray was pushed out of the writer’s affections by Bosie. It was his beauty that had been the inspiration for Wilde’s only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the story of the man unmarked by his increasingly dissolute life which instead leaves its marks on a picture he keeps in the attic.

C. J. Wilmann’s play presents the real life story of that beautiful boy, beginning just after the publication of the notorious new novel at a party in the home of stage designer Charles Ricketts and his partner Charles Shannon.

Director Gus Miller and designer Rosanna Vize don’t go for visual realism but a symbolic setting with huge sketch of kissable lips and a bare shoulder on a white wall rows of paint tins on the floor (though the significance of it being house paint eludes me) and cabin trunks which usefully contain props. With some rearrangement by the actors (especially house-proud Shannon) this supports a rapid flow of action from scene to scene

Here Ricketts is fastidiously finishing a painting while Shannon is fussing around getting ready for guests. They are coming for an evening of poetry and Gray, Bosie, the rich French Jewish critic Andre Raffalovich and Wilde are all expected, though Oscar doesn’t turn up.

Gray thinks of Wilde’s novel as “a beautiful story” but the press have called it “nasty and nauseous” and the painters see it as dangerously drawing attention to what had been their discreet homosexual circle. When Bosie reads his poem Two Loves (with the line “the love that dare not speak its name” which was later to be quoted when Wilde went to court) they urge him not to publish it.

Wilde’s history is now well known but Wilmann’s play shows its damaging effect on his friends’ lives and what happens to John Gray, a young man whose devout Catholicism is in conflict with his desires, and the deep affection he develops for Raffalovich.

The Picture of John Gray provides a delightful picture of bickering Victorian gay domesticity in Oliver Allan’s slightly arch Charles Ricketts and Jordan McCurrach’s solicitous Shannon, perfect hosts in their house in The Vale, Chelsea.

Tom Cox, blonde haired and exhibitionist in a white brocade outfit, is a big-headed Bosie but not camp, a sort of early gay-libber and damn the consequences, but blind to reality. Patrick Walshe McBride is a prettier Gray and youthfully camper, though that doesn’t detract from his seriousness. His story is indeed intriguing.

Andre Raffalovich plays a very big part in that story, much more important than Oscar. Christopher Tester gives great depth to his character, the rock in a relationship rather than the dilettante rich man he might look like.

A Morningside rectory seems to have a great deal in common with a Chelsea atelier in this true life history with its surprising (factual) twist in the tail. Willman’s moving and often funny play looks at love in various manifestations and illuminates now little known figures.

Rickett’s stage designs are well known but this gives us the man. There is a glimpse of Lord Alfred post-Wilde and although the relationship between working class boy turned civil servant poet Gray and Russian émigré critic Raffalovich had already been written about, had you ever heard of it?

Reviewer: Howard Loxton