Dear Brutus

J M Barrie

Troupe

Southwark Playhouse

From 29 November 2017 to 30 December 2017

Review by Philip Fisher

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There’s always something a little bit special about a centenary, which makes this revival of Dear Brutus even more of an event.

The play was first performed in October 1917 at Wyndham’s Theatre with a cast led by the company’s famous manager, Gerald du Maurier.

Coincidentally, the underlying theme and concept of this whimsical parable have considerable similarities with those behind Jerome K Jerome’s The Passing of the Third Floor Back, which is around 10 years older and currently playing at the Finborough.

Played in a long, narrow traverse, Jonathan O’Boyle’s production for Troupe benefits from a stylish set and period costumes, courtesy of Anna Reid. The scenic effects peak with a lovely flood of rose petals to sweeten a change in mood and location.

The one and three-quarter hour evening, which can best be characterised by a little girl’s question to her arty father “Daddy—what is a might have been?”

Before that, the play opens with tense drama as five ladies invited to the home of the Robin Hooper’s mysterious Lob, an old eccentric (or as his guests suggest “a funny little fellow”) with a beard worthy of Santa Claus, interrogate his butler, the mendacious Matey, played by Simon Rhodes.

He reluctantly divulges enough information to warn them about the perils of spending Midsummer Eve in the vicinity of a non-existent wood, while we also learn from the elderly Mrs Coade that Lob is apparently another name for Puck.

For anyone steeped in theatre lore or even vaguely aware of the works of Shakespeare, this should be enough of an indication that Dear Brutus is J M Barrie’s homage to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Once enticed into the mysterious, petal-strewn wood, some wild dreams are played out, in every case reaching happier conclusions than real life whether they concern an edgy ménage a trois played by Charlotte Brimble, Bathsheba Piepe and Edward Sayer, Miles Richardson’s artist with a liking for port or James Woolley and Jodie Kidd as an elderly couple in search of lost youth.

The morals to be drawn from a story showing people their better natures should be obvious. J M Barrie clearly believes in another Shakespearean acknowledgement that “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings” or, more prosaically, we are all innately good and might even be able to get back on track to the straight and narrow if reminded of that fact on the longest night of the year.

The acting may not be uniformly perfect but Dear Brutus is a charming story that does not overstay its welcome and provides a reminder that the creator of Peter Pan was a prolific playwright who had far more in his armoury than the single story of a boy who never grew up and of whom audiences never tire.