Review: Selfie, National Youth Theatre of Great Britain at the Ambassadors Theatre

“Ugliness is unfortunate. Beauty is unforgivable”

Written and devised by Brad Birch along with the company of the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain’s rep season (this is the second year they’ve ventured into the West End with a triple bill), Selfie is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray reimagined for the iPad generation. Transplanted from the whirl of Victorian bohemia to the vacuous poseurs of Hoxton’s hipsters, the portrait of this Dorian (here a woman) is captured digitally but in other respects, largely follows the downwards spiral of Wilde’s original.

It is grindingly hard to care about Mountford, Shenton is grim and gruelling, Gardner has mediocre material – it is fair to say that Selfie didn’t really click with the critics but in all honesty, I couldn’t see quite what provoked such particular ire. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a fair deal that doesn’t work – especially in relation to the source material – but that this company (made up of 18 to 25 year olds) is being empowered to devise theatre for West End audiences feels like something to be celebrated and if they’re not allowed to take risks now, then when?

The weaknesses stem from the focus falling too much on representing the shallowness of the hipster scene instead of examining it, simply leaving its key characters to wallow in the amoral morass rather than exploring how it is affecting their relationships. Instead it’s all pretentious facial hair, overblown 80s references and excessive posturing – brilliant to look at (Google Glass as a monocle just one of Verity Quinn’s inspired design choices) and to listen to (the Talking Heads snippets) but all empty calories in the end as they replace rather than enhance the dramatic heft.

Paul Roseby’s production relishes this sharp-edged hedonism and its inherent unlikeability but which flattens out some of the more distinctive characterisation that could have shone through this crowd, only Dominic Grove really makes his mark here. Ellie Bryans as Sybil, recast as a winsome singer-songwriter, and Fabian McCallum as her brother, fiercely furious at the loss of her innocence, register much more strongly. And as Dorian herself, Kate Kennedy dominates the stage with an alluring charisma. Not as bad as all that then.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 26th November

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