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Reading Gaol review at Styx, London – ‘ambitious but unfocused’

Proforca Theatre's Reading Gaol at Styx, London
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Weaving five starkly different stories into the text of Oscar Wilde’s haunting ballad, Reading Gaol is an ambitious but often unfocused exploration of freedom and imprisonment.

Following a preliminary run in 2017, Proforca has overhauled the show, with director David Brady reworking the staging for Theatre N16’s bleakly atmospheric Tottenham warehouse space.  In this concrete box full of shadows and roiling haze, vertical torch-beams evoke prison bars, while a spotlight falls on a soldier’s scarlet coat slung over a chair, the production’s sole touch of colour.

As the five-strong cast recite chunks of Wilde’s verse, they tramp in slow circles or drop to their knees in prayer. From time to time, more abstract movements creep in, though these are neither frequent nor purposeful enough to feel meaningful.

The newer text is uneven in tone, varying from pulpy, penny dreadful tales of crime and punishment to ponderous musings on the nature of liberty. The best follows Miles Parker’s naïve country lad, struggling to grasp the sequence of events which left him behind bars, his earnest incomprehension of his situation making it all the more heart breaking.

Another, written in a taut sprung-rhythm which compensates for its unwieldy abstraction, sees Malcolm Jeffries struggling with his isolation, obsessively writing the names of fellow inmates across his body.

Through it all, sounds of portentously slamming cell doors and a generic susurrus of whispering voices rise and fall, occasionally drowning out the text, but effectively creating an atmosphere of dread and dislocation.

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Promising if profoundly unpolished anthology piece responding to Oscar Wilde’s ballad of compassionate despair