My Night With Reg getting revived, while at the Old Red Lion a new play looks at one of the best-known "inverts" in history from a different angle. Oscar Wilde never actually appears in C.J. Wilmann's The Picture of John Gray but the characters we do see are at the mercy of the celebrated writer; or rather of his wildly variable levels of popularity. Rozanna Vize's design is of an artist's studio, reflecting The Vale, the scene of much of the action. It's the much-loved home of Charles Ricketts (Oliver Allan) and Charles Shannon (Jordan McCurrach,) a popular pair at the heart of Wilde's circle, thinly-veiled versions of whom appeared in his controversial novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Even less concealed is the identity of the real Dorian himself, and when we first meet John Gray (Patrick Walshe McBride) he's reveling in his position not just as the object of Wilde's affection, but also as the inspiration for the beautiful protagonist.
By the next party, though, John has been supplanted in Wilde's affections by the abrasive Bosie Douglas (Tom Cox.) Comfort comes from another man caricatured in the book, and John finds in critic Andre Raffalovich (Christopher Tester) a true supporter rather than the "ugly French Jew" he's been led to expect.
The Picture of John Gray is a fairly gentle look at the hiding-in-plain-sight life led by gay men in Victorian London, from the forthright rhetoric of Bosie, talking like a martyr but ending up comparatively unscathed in public by the affair, to the quiet life preferred by the nervous Charleses. Somewhere between them fall John and Andre, who escape to Berlin to avoid getting caught up in Wilde's trial, but find that John can't reconcile their lives together with the religious faith he still feels passionate about.
But if Wilmann's play isn't earth-shattering it's heartfelt and interesting, run through with a quiet sadness but with moments of wit - leaving Wilde off-stage means there's no pressure to try and emulate his style. Instead the repeated line "it turns out they do that too," about Olive, another unseen but notable character, makes for a good running gag. The play has a mild case of Multiple Ending Syndrome that could have done with being tightened up, but overall Gus Miller's production is crisp, and The Picture of John Gray proves a good option if you're looking to fill August's comparative theatre drought.
The Picture of John Gray by C.J. Wilmann is booking until the 30th of August at the Old Red Lion Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours including interval.