It’s always worrying when a friend offers you comps to see them perform in a play. What do you say if they’re terrible? When I raised this on Twitter, Lorelei King replied:
@scottm Once someone came backstage to see me after a show and complimented me on how well my costume was ironed.
— Lorelei King (@LoreleiKing) July 13, 2011
So whenever I get an invitation along these lines, I accept with not a little trepidation. Thankfully, when my friend asked me along to see her and her fellow students from Drama Studio London in their graduation show, Dear Brutus at the New Diorama Theatre, she was excellent. As, indeed, were the cast as a whole.
I have to admit that I knew very little of J M Barrie’s play before today. In the near century since its 1917 premiere, its reputation (and that of most of Barrie’s other work) has been eclipsed by the enduring popularity of Peter Pan. The treatment of that latter play since its first creation, though – whether by Disney or by its adoption into the pantomime oeuvre – has dulled somewhat the complexities that led George Bernard Shaw to dub it “ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people.” Barrie’s work has more to say about the world, as it was then and as it is now, than we tend to remember.
And there’s a clear message within the magic-fuelled comedy of Dear Brutus – that we cannot rely on change from without (i.e., Fate) but only from within. And this explains the title, which comes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act 1, Scene 2: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves…”). Not content with passing on that aphorism, though, Barrie introduces what could easily have been a much more depressing prospect – that even when given the chance to change from within, we tend not to. Thankfully the humour is such that the message is food for thought that does not overpower the performances.
The allusions to Shakespeare are closer to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though, as a number of well-to-do Englishmen and women, holidaying at the country house of a Puck-like figure, wander into a magical forest which appears around the house on Midsummer’s Eve. In the forest, they lose memories of who they were, and become images of who they could have been. When they do return to the house and their old memories start to emerge, they have to face up to what their experience has taught them about themselves, and whether they can make themselves better people as a result.
The period setting is something that the cast members warm to at different rates: one or two members come quite close to caricature of the period (although in part this is intentional by the author: poor Kate Miller is challenged into playing a character who pronounces all her “r”s as “w”s, a deliberate affection rather than a Jonathan Ross-style genuine vocal tic). In the first act, Alexa Hedly’s Mrs Dearth feels by far the most comfortable: her fellow house guests warm up in time, under the watchful eye of Felix Trench’s delightfully eccentric host, Lob.
After the first interval, the action transfers into the magical forest itself, and characters transform into versions of themselves that might have been. A series of vignettes, Kate Miller gets the chance to flesh out her character beyond the blight of her speech pattern, and proves herself to have a lightness of touch that Act I only hinted at. A definite highlight here is Mr Dearth’s alternative life, where the drunken lush introduced in the first act becomes a thoughtful and sensitive artist with a daughter. Simon Blake and Sadie Lonsdale excel here, the latter in particular. Her portrayal of a young child, bursting with persistent questions, calls for attention and verbal flights of fancy is mesmerising. There’s a line with children of that age where their precociousness walks a fine line between endearing and totally slappable. On its own, Lonsdale’s portrayal would make her character vault over the line, but through Blake’s sensitive devotion, we see her from the loving parent’s point of view where that line is redrawn in a very different place. And as their scene draws to an end and Dearth finds himself drawn back to real life, his daughter’s realisation that she is a fading ephemeral is heartbreaking.
The third act, as the house guests return to the safety of the house and gradually remember their real lives, is a fine mix of humour and pathos as well. And once again, it is Blake who draws it out here, as he sobs at the loss of the daughter he never had. It would be a hard-hearted audience member who could not feel a similar swell of emotion at that point.
So, a success for all the postgraduate students as they embark on the first stages of their professional careers. And maybe, just maybe, this wonderful piece by Barrie will get a wider airing some time soon, for it deserves greater recognition than it currently has.
(Oh, and by the way – the friend I mentioned who invited me in the first place? Sadie Lonsdale. And I can say, with hand on heart, that it’s not just because I know her that I think she gave the performance of the night.)