I had never heard of Sebastian Horsley before the press night of Dandy In The Underworld, the work of the controversial artist, writer and dandy must have passed me by.
I get the feeling I may have been the only audience member for whom this was the case; that is my fault, not theirs. My ignorance did, however, present me with the chance to become acquainted with this convention-defying character for the first time through Tim Fountain’s new play, an adaptation of Horsley’s own book.
We meet Horsley in his Soho flat. A large covered easel dominates the room, which also features a throne-like chair at its centre, a somehow non-macabre cabinet of skulls on one wall and a shrine to Horsley near the window from which he can peer out on the London street below.
Horsley, played by Milo Twomey with a hint of Blackadder era Hugh Laurie, talks directly to the audience, telling us about his life and beliefs. Within two minutes we have covered defecation and masturbation, which pretty much sets the tone for much of the evening. Toss in substance abuse and a habit for using prostitutes that could probably keep the UK sex industry alive by itself, and the picture of a man who revels in fighting against ‘normality’ in the most evocative of ways is complete.
Being a dandy, this counter-culture lifestyle is dressed up in the most fantastic of red velvet suits with a sparkling tie.
The glitter and trappings, of course, mask a darker, hidden truth. Horsely struggles with OCD and his childhood, dominated by two alcoholic parents, sounds enough to demagnetise anyone’s moral compass.
Twomey offers rare glimpses into this frailty behind the bravado, but for the most part Dandy In The Underworld delights in delivering entertaining anecdotes and pithy one-liners that continue to shock. It achieves the ‘look at me’ attention-grabbing at which Horsley’s antics have always been aimed.
It is hard not to be judgmental when faced with a character who, however charismatic and flawed they may be, flies in the face of what you believe to be right, no matter how understanding you try to be. Horsley admits early on in the piece that “I’m aiming to be a self-absorbed t**t.” He succeeds.