The pictures of Sarah Snook. Image: Marc Brenner

Why theatre is falling for the solo show

The economic realities of the post-pandemic years have made these star-powered, cost-effective productions even more attractive
March 27, 2024

If you’re in New York City this spring, you can catch Eddie Izzard playing all 25 characters in Hamlet. Lest anyone mistake this for another of the entertainer’s comedy performances, the New York Times assures us that “this frenetic staging is earnest, surprisingly traditional and deadly serious.” It is also a flop. The direction is reported by the NYT to disappoint. “Imagine sock puppets without the socks and you get an idea of her Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.”

If you’re in London, the solo-performer options are better. British audiences currently have a choice between Sarah Snook’s high-tech performance in The Picture of Dorian Gray and Billy Crudup’s more pared-down monologue, Harry Clarke. Both are chasing last year’s success of Andrew Scott’s Vanya, in which the Fleabag actor played eight different characters, frequently in dialogue with each other.

The driving force behind this trend for solo shows is economic: in a theatre landscape devastated by Covid—where most venues are still paying back pandemic-era loans—there’s an even greater emphasis on hits and cashflow. 

A single performer is cheaper than an ensemble, even if the screen stars in these spectacles are not thought to be coming cheap. They are also more portable—or at least the show itself is, with its low-cost base and easy replicability, so that it can be transferred to any city where affluent theatregoers are happy to pay top-dollar. The economics of the model have more in common with Taylor Swift’s Eras concerts than with a traditional RSC tour.

Crudup’s show arrives in London via New York and Berkeley. Dorian Gray originated in Sydney during the pandemic—when social distancing also played a major role in the rise of the one-person show—with Eryn Jean Norvill leading the first runs. Both Crudup and Snook enjoy their recent name recognition not from Hollywood blockbusters, but from supposedly higher-brow TV shows: Snook in Succession, Crudup in The Morning Show. Both shows had audiences that overlap neatly with theatre ticket-buyers.

The model has more in common with Taylor Swift’s Eras concerts than a traditional theatrical tour

Yet, unlike Vanya, which banked on Scott’s unique versatility as a performer, Dorian Gray is not dependent on a particular actor. For all Snook’s talent and intelligence, her performance is buried under wigs and silken costumes, bogged down with disguises.

Yes, she plays 26 roles, as advertised, but half of these are projected onto film screens—with which the live actor, in her central role as Oscar Wilde’s eponymous antihero, engages in knowing banter. The skill most demonstrated here is not the actor’s craft, but mastery of video editing. Snook’s image is manipulated endlessly on screen, including in one extended and all-too-obvious commentary on contemporary vanities, Instagram filters.

Much of this appears to be projected live from nooks where Snook hides in corners on the stage, but some is surely prerecorded. At the show’s climax, she delivers a series of key monologues from behind a large screen that obstructs our view—so that although she is “live’”, we can only watch the video image being projected beyond her hiding place, like the screen of a royal funeral outside Westminster Abbey.

What saves Dorian Gray is the sympathy between this slippery game of self-fashioning and the source material. Wilde’s story about a man who presents himself as young and beautiful to the world, even as his cursed portrait decays in line with his self-destructive hedonism, is a natural fit for director Kip Williams’s interest in image-making.

Harry Clarke suffers from the comparison with Dorian Gray—since it tells the story of another sexually omnivorous impostor hiding behind fake personae, with none of Wilde’s wit to lift his dialogue. Clarke is the cockney alter ego of an American (real name: Philip Brugglestein) on a mission to seduce the entire family of a wealthy East Coaster he starts stalking on a whim. “Everyone should be offered temptation at least twice a month,” he drawls to his male lover’s sister; in a weak echo of Wilde’s own “I can resist everything except temptation.” Snook gets better lines.

Nevertheless, Crudup tells his story with the comic timing of a standup and none of the bells and whistles of Dorian Gray. Alexander Dodge’s set is a simple deckchair and table, as if to offset Crudup’s frenetic speaking rate—when not playing cockney, he channels a more aristocratic Englishman in New York, with a reedy, fluting accent suggestive of Quentin Crisp being played by Harriet Walter.

Crudup’s Harry Clarke is less of a grand night out than Dorian Gray, less of a destination event. Yet it has one great advantage over Snook’s series of video relays: like Scott’s Vanya, this is pure theatre—pure acting. If solo star vehicles are here to stay, they should go back to basics.