Dear Brutus review
Time Out says
This ancient JM Barrie hit has not aged well
Before trash film and trash TV came along to distract us, there was an awful lot more trash theatre about. This short supernatural melodrama by ‘Peter Pan’ author JM Barrie enjoyed two lengthy West End stints in the ’10s and ’20s but has largely been forgotten because it is, in essence, terrible.
Nonetheless, if the last few years have taught us anything it’s that there’s a great danger in forgetting the past. So accepting ‘Dear Brutus’ is bobbins, then this is a loving, enthusiastic restoration from theatre company Troupe that deserves time as a historical artefact if not a serious work of theatre.
A group of strangers have been invited to the isolated country home of Robin Hooper’s eccentric aristocrat Lob (I’m unclear if this really happened as often IRL as early-twentieth-century literature suggest or if it was just an acceptable plot set up back then).
They’re largely dysfunctional couples with heavy regrets about certain decisions they took in the past. Lob’s philandering butler Matey (Simon Rhodes) warns them that they have been invited here in order to lure them into the enchanted wood that appears at Midsummer Night’s Eve. The wood duly appears, and the group suddenly find they are alternate versions of themselves, who have made good their regrets back in the ‘real’ world.
Like a lot of British theatre of the time, it uses a fantastical set-up to impart an Improving Message. In this case it’s there in the title: ‘the fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars but in ourselves,’ quoth Cassius in Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’, and that’s pretty much the deal here: the characters may have changed their choices, but they have not changed themselves. Thus affable old chap Coade (James Wooley) remains a lovely man, but explores his interest in playing the flute; whist incorrigible bounder John Purdie (Edward Sayer) has successfully ditched his wife Mabel (Bathsheba Piepe) for his mistress Joanna (Charlotte Brimble); except now he’s married to Joanna and having an affair with Mabel.
The likes of Shaw or Priestley could carry this sort of thing off, in part because they always made the stakes feel high. Barrie doesn’t: the play barely tops 90 minutes, and when the guests return to the real world they launch into a painfully po-faced discussion of what they’ve just learned, rather than the more logical response of screaming ‘what the FUCK, Lob?’
It is not without charm, and even poignancy, thanks to the strand about Will Dearth (Miles Richardson) a bitter middle-aged gadabout who wishes he’d had a child; in the wood he has a daughter, and is altogether happier, and their inevitable separation does give it a bit of emotional whumpf.
I’m not sure if Jonathan O’Boyle’s direction really makes the best sense out of a play that’s all over the shop tonally – he’s so eager to pounce on the comic bits that he goes too far, hamming the play up rather than trying to rationalise it. But there’s a lovely set from Anna Reid, and a general feeling of great care put into the whole endeavour.
Troupe’s ‘Dear Brutus’ epitomises the problem inherent in reviving obsolete drama - I’m glad it’s been revived, but I’m not sure I’d recommend anybody see it.