Photography by Abby Swain with permission

A Wilde Life dramatises the final years of its titular poet Oscar Wilde, set in a Parisian cafe in the city where the writer spent the last few years of his life following his imprisonment for homosexuality. The play is grounded in this single location, simply but beautifully curated to capture a fallen Moulin Rouge of Parisian debauchery which ushered in the twilight years of Wilde’s life where the play reflects on his rise and fall.

Here, Wilde meets a variety of local eccentrics who remind him of the characters of his own life, enabling a dramatisation of his life story and introducing us to his wife, children, former lovers and arch enemies. This inventive premise is refreshing and clever, making the most of the show’s small venue and limited budget to bring the trials and tribulations of Wilde’s life story to a new audience, embracing in particular his queerness and complicated personal relationships.

Elements of audience participation and ‘meta-comedy’ sprinkled throughout the tight runtime were adventurous and well rewarded by a friendly crowd cheering along. While the Town and Gown is a more modest theatrical venue than other comparable places around the city, this student production makes the most of limited space and runtime to bring an intense emotional rollercoaster of music and drama in a compact 50 minute runtime.

“This inventive premise is refreshing and clever, making the most of the show’s small venue”

The production is grounded by some brilliant well-rounded performances by all cast members, in particular Jake Glantz as our titular Wilde, who navigates tonal shifts and rapid plot developments with ease. Glantz brings a surprising nuance and thoughtfulness to what could have easily been a reductive caricature of Wilde’s complex legacy. He is well supported by a uniformly talented cast, although particular praise must be directed to Freya MacTavish as Wilde’s scorned wife Constance. The maturity of her performance, combined with a powerful solo in the song ‘Poor Connie’, in which she reflects on her failed marriage and complex feelings towards her genius but elusive husband, was genuinely moving and a standout moment from the show.

The brilliant original songs, complete with tightly choreographed dance numbers and a wealth of technical talent and dramatic flair, help bring this ambitious production to new heights.

However, occasionally the complex premise and messy chronology of the play can be more confusing than it is illuminating, especially with actors talking over each other, switching characters without clear indication, or simply speaking too fast to be clearly understood. In some ways then the modest runtime does the play a disservice – allowing for an extension would give the actors a little more breathing room to navigate the complexities of the story, and reign in the shows’ frantic tendencies. Still, the live musical accompaniment seamlessly unites the show’s sporadic singing, acting, dancing and comedy elements, and is no less impactful for its simplicity. The dramatic flair and unbridled energy of the supporting cast remains both intimate and highly professional, providing gasps and laughs as well as moments for reflection in the more sombre elements of Wilde’s story.

“The complex premise and messy chronology of the play can be more confusing than illuminating”

The ambitious original script, written and performed by a student production, attempts to combine a treatment of Wilde’s story as celebrity sensationalised gossip which centralises romantic and sexual entaglements, whilst also balancing the sincerity of the trauma of imprisonment and the weight of Wilde’s social ostracisation. Ultimately the play is more successful with the former romantic focus, carefully portraying Wilde as both a hedonistic flirt and as a complicated, sincere romantic who wrestled with his familial obligations and the social prejudices of the era.

The sole focus of Wilde’s romantic biography may leave some audience members more interested in Wilde’s literary career to feel considerably shortchanged. Indeed, it does seem somewhat ironic that while the show declares its intention to share Wilde ‘unknown story’, it neglects many facets of his life that are even more unknown than his queerness which the story centralises. In particular, the play’s adamant apoliticism is a little disappointing, introducing Wilde’s mother as a central character but neglecting to mention her life-long fight for the cause of Irish liberation which Wilde shared, or similarly Wilde’s strong political affiliations with anarchism and socialism which influenced his works and beliefs. Including these elements may have helped with the dramatic tonal shift from ‘Wilde as decadent hedonist’ at the beginning of the play to ‘Wilde as downtrodden cynic’ at the end, whilst offering a more rounded and nuanced presentation of its central character.


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Despite these limitations of scope, both in the length of the play and its breadth of focus, it was impossible not to enjoy this joyous and chaotic celebration of Wilde’s life. This energetic production combines a multitude of musical and performative talents to an impactful effect, illuminating an untold story of queer love and oppression, and for this should be celebrated and enjoyed as the kind of rebellious, challenging art that deserves both platform and praise.

A Wilde Life is playing at the Town and Gown, Cambridge, at 7:45pm, 26th-29th of July