The Picture of Dorian Gray/Malvern Theatres

OSCAR Wilde was undoubtedly the life and soul of many a late Victorian social gathering but he seems to have been in a dark place when he wrote this Gothic tale of doomed self-love.

The destructive potential of unfettered narcissism is the central notion of this cautionary tale, and although not a particularly original theme, Wilde’s take on the human capacity for folly easily withstands the passing of the years.

For a man who worshipped at the altar of hedonism, Wilde appears to have been in an uncharacteristically moralistic frame of mind when he created this rake’s progress into the bowels of Hell.

Dorian Gray basically sells his soul to the Devil in the form of aristocratic idler Lord Henry Wotton. He’s just had his portrait painted by artist Basil Hallward and the resulting daub so captivates Wotton that he persuades Gray to join him in his nether world of endless gratification.

Wotton’s sole reason to exist is the pursuit of pleasure, regardless of the cost to anyone else. His is a sneering, callous existence that recognises neither compassion nor culpability.

Gray willingly and eagerly joins Wotton in the morally sterile environment that they unquestioningly regard as their natural home yet is in all reality a prison.

Gray’s heartlessness is typified by his false love and then abrupt rejection of actress Sybil Vane, played with an achingly tragic gravitas by Kate Dobson.

Jonathan Wrather turns in a superb performance as the debauched, whisky-sodden Wotton, while Daniel Goode’s Hallward, like some latter-day Frankenstein, increasingly becomes alarmed at the escalating horror of his creation.

But the star of this bleak ballad of crime and punishment is undoubtedly Gavin Fowler as Gray, who disintegrates before our very eyes as he careers along his path of destruction.

A joint effort produced by Tilted Wig together with Malvern Theatres and the Churchill Theatre, this chilling parable runs until Saturday (May 11).

John Phillpott