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FringeReview UK 2017

Low Down

Directed by Jonathan O’Boyle Dear Brutus is staged by Troupe regular Anna Reid in traverse. Rugs, sofas, chairs and decanters are peppered with emblematic Art Nouveau lamps and a turned-down Little Dorrit. There’s simplicity of line in Lily O’Hara’s period costume, dining suit, svelte flapper or bulbous rags with (again) Peter Harrison’s clean lighting and sound design with beguiling music by Max Perrymount.


Anything Troupe mount is worth diverting fifty miles to: their production of James Shirley’s 1641 The Cardinal also at Southwark Playhouse in May was overwhelming. It would have graced Stratford’s Swan.

J. M Barrie’s 1917 Dear Brutus is as different as could be imagined. It’s equally fine. Both Troupe and Southwark are on superb form and a decision to mount a centenary production of a play defiantly not about the war is brave for several reasons. Dear Brutus – referencing character and slant decision as determiners of fate – skirts sentimentality and profundity. Barrie triumphs in perhaps his greatest play (though Mary Rose, from 1920 runs it very close), sometimes by a wisp of tenebrous hocus. In its fantastic and naturalist modes, and romance particularly it teeters on the appallingly saccharine, only to leave you breathless. Compassed in a hundred minutes without an interval, this is the finest revival of any Barrie play I can recall.


Directed by Jonathan O’Boyle it’s staged by Troupe regular Anna Reid in traverse. Rugs, sofas, chairs and decanters are peppered with emblematic Art Nouveau lamps and a turned-down Little Dorrit. The second act however transforms this into a wood with a simple, magical snowing of blossom. There’s simplicity of line in Lily O’Hara’s period costume, dining suit, svelte flapper or bulbous rags with (again) Peter Harrison’s clean lighting and sound design with beguiling music by Max Perrymount. Not content with crafting an ancient gramophone effect of Debussy’s L’Aprés-Midi d’Un Faune playing for ten minutes pre-set – thematically and atmospherically ideal – he takes the first few wood-notes wild of Mahler First Symphony, and makes something wholly other of them. For one thing, the flutes return with a character.


The title’s from lines knowingly quoted by philanderer John Purdie: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/but in ourselves, that we are underlings.’ The work’s not simply a homage to another Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but a play whose influence on J. B. Priestley’s time plays – particularly the heart-rending Time and the Conways – is plain, as well as on time-slips by contemporaries from Ayckbourn to Payne.


Puck who’s grown old as Lob has invited selected couples, a trio and single aristocrat to his country house, where by indirection he manipulates them outdoors, where a magically-appearing wood alights in a different area every midsummer’s night’s eve. Robin Hooper’s child-like querulous nature only has Act One to reveal himself, and Hooper’s catalyst is winningly wrought with, well a Puckish tantrum and a sleep.


With one exception the guests leave along with the butler, to a wood where second dream chances reveal paths not taken. As a contemporary Kipling put it, ‘there is no road through the woods’ but here there is, in revelations.


Purdie himself – the wondrously adroit Edward Sayer – ends a detached commentator, in a love triangle with wife Mabel and lover Joanna Trout. We’re treated to a diptych of love-interests such as: ‘why are you so svelte, Joanna’ and other manipulative declarations of being the loneliest man on earth. Such declarations begin with Charlotte Brimble’s alert and ardent Joanna. She impressed in the Print Room’s Tempest last year, and does so here with the easier of the two women’s roles to like. Bathsheba Piepe’s Mabel can be more liberal with asperity to begin with. In the woods though their roles reverse. It’s Joanna John Purdie flees pursuing Mabel in the same language he previously used to woo Joanna. Piepe’s and Sayer’s sylvan embraces are more overtly sexual, certainly more than 1917 would allow, and works beautifully: it’s also a homage to that other uninhibited Dream.


But it’s Sayer’s Purdie who tells both of them, as they come to in the house they’ve unwittingly returned to: ‘It isn’t very pleasant to discover that one is a rotter. I suppose I shall get use to it.’ There’s more than a shaft of self-knowledge. Purdie, discovering he’s not that emotional after all, becomes somehow the awoken conscience of the play. As each couple returns, he and what seem to be perhaps a ménage a trois of the future flinch or wonder at how the others will merge from the brief, alternate selves. One of the cut lines summarises Purdie’s compassion: ‘this is going to be horrible.’ This production doesn’t need it.


A great stretch of Act Two, though lights on Miles Richardson’s magnificently terraced Will Dearth, painter-turned-alcoholic, fleeing his bitter wife Alice, Emma Davies, whose depth of exchange with him remains one of the dark triumphs of this comedy. She appears as a ragged outcast fleeing the husband she didn’t in fact marry, begging crusts: the alternative would have been worse. Now oblivious to her identity Dearth paints rejuvenated with Venice van Someren (recently impressive in The Real Thing) as his dream child Margaret cavorting and cajoling, leading an idyllic existence painting in the woods. Shadows lengthen as she puts up her hair to warn him of womanhood: the disturbing erotic tease hinted at is somehow sublimated in the truth Richardson and van Someren bring to this genuine mining of pathos, rooted in Barrie’s loss. ‘How awful it would be, Daddy, to wake up and find one wasn’t alive ‘ preludes her accidental desertion counting a hundred. Like Barrie’s own brother, she ends up even more as a ‘a might—have-been’; it’s the most desolate part of this play, or perhaps Barrie’s writing. Van Someren in this production returns too: it’s a spectral heartbreak.


There’s fine support from this flawless ensemble. Josie Kidd’s warmly observant Mrs Coade who stays behind yet finds her returning oblivious husband – not knowing her – wants to marry her straight away: James Woolley had been piping flutes. He’s the experiment’s control: he’s perfectly happy alone but immediately woos, completely unchanged in his second self.


Barrie’s subversive but not quite complete inversion of class as in the 1902 The Admirable Crighton where a butler take charge on a deserted island, here gets reduced treatment in Simon Rhodes’ shady Matey. A pilferer blackmailed by the ladies at the outset into revealing more of his master, Matey’s an even bigger crook in his second life, had he had his chance. Yet he charms his nemesis Lady Caroline Laney. Helen Bradbury’s snorting equine performance sports angular repose and faint disquiet. Conscious, she wants him jailed: yet elsewhere she invites his sexual dominance.


Barrie’s different versions including an equivocal happiness for the Dearths is here compressed into a terse sadness with no after-glimpses – Barrie’s fussy, endless directions are hard to realize, are in fact designed for the reader.


O’Boyle cuts through all this with a haunting evocation of Barrie’s drivers: loss, regret, the outside possibility of second chances. The clarity and truth he and his cast brings to this tricky, infinitely moving and sometimes maddening play, couldn’t be bettered. The tenebrous self-knowledge and resolve out of shadows mark Barrie’s best work. It amounts to genius more than worth seeing. It’s a magically sad examining of how we limit ourselves, shutting off the forest of possibilities. Quite outstanding.