Sunday, January 29

A Wilde Life – Workshop Theatre, Leeds

Tonight, I was fortunate enough to see the opening preview of Chevron Theatre production of ‘A Wilde Life’ in Leeds, prior to dates in Cambridge and culminating at Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. A musical based on the rise and fall of literary giant Oscar Wilde, upon initial viewing I am in little doubt that if the audience seek out this gem of a production in the plethora of offerings in Edinburgh, then this Leeds based company will have a hit on their hands.

Running at just under an hour, the show opens in a seedy ‘fin de siècle’ Parisian café, populated with debauched alcoholics and prostitutes that form the ensemble during the scene setting opening (Oscar in Paris). Following his ostentatious entrance, Wilde (Jake Glantz) then proceeds to illustrate his rise and fall by transforming the ensemble into characters from his past. So, we meet Robbie Ross (Ajay Sahota), Wilde’s first illicit homosexual lover as well as fellow writer Ada Leverson (Imogen Chancellor) and his formidable mother Lady Jane (Dalia Kay). Over the course of two songs (Love and Art & Careful Darling), these three characters vividly display Wilde in his early period, utilising blues and jazz melodies that encapsulate the hedonism of both the man and the period, with style and wit.

The tone shifts with the introduction of Bosie (Zak Muggleton Gellas) and Constance (Freya MacTavish) as these characters vie for the attention of Oscar, the responsibilities of marriage and family set against the desire of the flesh and soul. Both their songs (Eternal Youths & Silly Connie) have their roots firmly in musical theatre, with the former particularly effective when rendered simply against a backdrop of Bosie and Oscar quietly sitting reading to each other. Following his hubristic rise, we then witness his nemesis in the form of Marquess Of Queensbury (Millie Fern Parker), the famous trial and his subsequent jailing and disgrace. The penultimate song of the show (De Profundis) is a fitting finale, channelling Wilde’s famous letter to Bosie into a heartfelt plea for tolerance and the dignity of love.

Photo: Abby Swain

Glantz is strong in showing the reflective, softer side of Wilde and his portrayal quickly overrides his lack of physical resemblance to the writer and there are uniformly excellent characterisations from the rest of the cast. The strong vocal performances shine, with Kay and Chancellor superb in their battling duet and MacTavish heartfelt and reflective in knowing she has been cuckolded by Bosie. At this early preview stage, I felt some of the diction of the dialogue and lyrics needed to be slower and clearer to better understand the exposition of this fast paced piece. There is also room for the addition of a (comedic) song for Cyrille and Vyvyan (Caitlin Etheridge & Casiah Palmer Stirling) as Wilde’s children, should the piece be developed further in the future. The differentiation between the real world bar room and the flights of Wildeian imagination could be made clearer, possibly with simple lighting adjustments. Costume and set invoke a ‘Moulin Rouge’ vibe perfectly in tune with the style of the era and the onstage presence of Musical Director Alex Boulton on piano added authenticity to the café milieu.

The creators (Boulton, Curno, Marlin, Ruby) have successfully demonstrated the diametrically opposed facets of Wilde’s character. Showing him as a man who flouted conventional morality and was ‘out and proud’ at a time when society shunned and vilified homosexuality, parading a series of lovers to a shocked and scandalised convention. Conversely, he also craved the love and affection of a secure relationship and tried to conform to societal norms with marriage and children, leading to him ostensibly burying his true nature, making everyone unhappy. By using the story of Wilde as a totem, it allows the unique format of the musical to demonstrate the stupidity of the law seeking to codify who to love, making the LGBTQ+ case more poetically and strongly than an obvious strident and polemic declaration would.

This show should find a natural home during its dates in Cambridge and Edinburgh, the fusion of musical styles and clever lyricism married to the story of an iconic artistic figure, gives it great potential to find favour amongst the literati and glitterati of the Festival Fringe.

This is a musical exploration of the life of Oscar told with wit, verve and style. You’ll fall in love with this show….

Reviewer: Paul Wilcox

Reviewed: 15th July 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★