Tag Archives: Henry Filloux-Bennett

“The Picture of Dorian Gray”

Henry Filloux-Bennett’s excellent new show is only loosely based on Oscar Wilde’s classic novel – and is all the better for that. Yes, Dorian sells his soul for eternal youth but, in the neatest of twists, it is only beauty that exists online. With skilful direction from Tamara Harvey, Filloux-Bennett uses the story for a stirring and topical condemnation of social media, focusing on its impact on mental health.

The plotting is strong, with a lot packed into 90 minutes. The conceit of an interview provides an effective framework and a nice cameo for none other than Stephen Fry. As we try to work out what has happened amongst a group of social media stars, there are elements of a mystery thriller, a touch of horror (as we get to see what happens to Dorian) and also romance. 

The love story provides highlights for the show’s titular lead, played by Fionn Whitehead, and gives his co-star Emma McDonald a chance to impress. The pumped-up part for McDonald’s Sybil Vane is excellent, her performance superb. Sybil’s chance for fame leads to heightened emotions McDonald makes deeply moving. And Sybil is just one of the characters, familiar from Wilde’s original, the show does so well with.

A gallery of portraits

Alfred Enoch in The Picture of Dorian Gray

Two older men take Dorian under their wings and Filloux-Bennett makes the most of this fascinating triangle. With Alfred Enoch’s version of Henry Wotton, the idea of an ‘influencer’ is brilliantly elaborated: the role would suit Wilde himself! Aided by cheeky crudity on top of appropriated epigrams, the role confirms Filloux-Bennett is unintimidated by his source. Enoch is sexy, scary and just human enough in the part to make you question Wotton’s every word. Russell Tovey’s Basil Hallward uses the tension of his character’s potential homosexuality especially well, and brings a sinister edge to the part.

As for the triangle’s third member, there might be some quibbles about Dorian’s much discussed “dazzling” charm. Might it be a mistake to see the Instagram pictures that create so many followers? How much are we supposed to fall for him? Whitehead does best when confronting Dorian’s mental breakdown, with conspiracy theories that enforce concerns about social media, and a vicious streak that is frightening.

Joanna Lumley in The Picture of Dorian Gray
Joanna Lumley

A further strong move from Filloux-Bennett comes with the character of Lady Narborough, played by Joanna Lumley. For Wilde, a hostess who “treats her guests exactly as an auctioneer treats his goods”, the character surely becomes Filloux-Bennett’s authorial voice (he deserves one): decrying the “devastating consequences” of going viral and living life online. Lumley brings plenty of nuance to a part that does a lot of explaining – the roles of philanthropist and mother figure to Dorian are both interesting complications.

While this Picture of Dorian Gray may not need to be set so specifically during lockdown, it is a benchmark for its times. Of many excellent shows provided, or even especially produced, to watch at home, this is one of the few that doesn’t make you feel you are missing something and would rather just see it live. The show has collaborative credits – Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley, New Wolsey, Oxford Playhouse and Theatr Clwyd – are all involved. It’s a welcome irony that, as theatres are starting plans to reopen (fingers crossed), so much has been achieved with their doors closed.

Until 31 March 2021


“Toast” from the Lawrence Batley Theatre

Another fund-raising attempt to bring a successful stage show online, this adaptation of Nigel Slater’s autobiography is a radio play spiced up with some lovely animation from a company called Dusthouse.

Should you wish, a ticket can include a recipe you can cook and a Walnut Whip to enjoy while watching. But the show’s success, as director Henry Filloux-Bennett appreciates, comes from Slater’s writing.

An appealing author, whose work is full of honesty, observation and heart. Slater manages – for the most part – to avoid making his nostalgia cloying. The depiction of his family, carefully portrayed from a child’s perspective, make strong characters for Lizzie Muncey and Stephen Ventura as his mum and dad, while a cooking cold war with his stepmother proves a highlight.

There’s a good deal of sweet humour about middle-class life in the 1960s. And heartbreak, with his mother’s early death. Notably, the homophobia Slater experienced is tackled with a light touch – the idea of “girl’s sweets” surely raises smiles of recognition. Ending with an optimism that makes Toast a comforting and safe affair, it is clear that the parallel with food of the title is not lost on its author.

Until 31July


“Decline and Fall” at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Decline and Fall is Evelyn Waugh’s first published novel. A riotous farce, heavy with satire, it follows the misfortunes of Paul Pennyfeather, whose relationship with the “much maligned” Lady Fortune is decidedly tangential. In Henry Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation, Waugh’s humour is given a surreal spin that adds to the comedy and creates an entertaining evening’s theatre.

Richard Kent’s design unites the worlds the hapless Paul suffers in: the college he is sent down from and the schoolroom he teaches in. The desks also stand in for his fiancée’s modernist house and, finally, the jail he is sent to on erroneous charges. Tom King’s direction controls the fun and the cast injects some inspired improvisation. From the beginning, the audience is asked to join in – this is a classroom you don’t want to be late for!

Waugh himself said that he had no technical psychological interest but that drama, speech and events obsessed him. This approach makes staging his work entertaining, but actors face the tricky task of dealing with characters that seem one-dimensional. King and Filloux-Bennett’s solution is courageous – they emphasise the slapstick and their cast embraces the strategy.

Sylvester McCoy is the star of the show, bringing his captivating eccentricity to the role of the drunken Captain Grimes and then the prison’s misguided warden. But it is the women who truly excel. Fay Downie plays Mrs Beste-Chetwynde as a wide-eyed flapper who might burst into song at any moment. Emily Murphy brings her considerable comic skill to the role of Florence Fagan, the headmaster’s autistic daughter. Combining this role with that of Lady Circumference (one of the those women who regard all athletics as an inferior form of fox hunting) is inspired.

The hardest role is the lead. Pennyfeather is a man who merely witnesses events; he doesn’t act but is acted upon. Michael Lindall performs this unrewarding role with appropriate modesty and spot-on comic timing that serves the production well. He masters a perplexed look that means you can’t help warming to him.

Pennyfeather’s eager dash to France to please Beste-Chetwynde is a lovely touch. Reappearing with beret and onions after a brief soundtrack of running feet and airplane propeller, it encapsulates this production’s anarchic streak. Any adaptation is a brave endeavour; you have to trust to the Lady Fortune that Waugh’s characters refer to – but she has done well by those at the Old Red Lion Theatre.  If you see Decline and Fall, chances are you will end up joining in with the cast and raising a glass to toast her.


Until 29 January 2011

Photo by Henry Filloux-Bennett

Written 6 December 2010 for The London Magazine