I actually spent much of Dear Brutus watching Michael Billington looking dissatisfied then leaving as fast as he could (similarly, the two friends of an actor I talked to outside after the performance were supportive but careful in their opinions). Dear Brutus is not a play that feels too satisfying. It’s not a famous play, despite its famous writer, and for good reason: it’s too ambitious and vague and small all at once. Having read one of the versions of the text years ago, however, seeing this production filled me with a kind of joy which was more than anything at J. M. Barrie’s command of his words. He’s more than competent, more even than delicate, and justifiably described as twee sometimes. But it’s this that makes such a strange and almost half-formed play something that I remembered and wanted to see done.
Troupe’s production for the Southwark Playhouse’s for the most part steps out of the way of the play and lets it run, which is the right choice. The cast know what they’re doing and there are moments of beauty and humour (a rogue rose petal decorating Helen Bradbury’s breast as she carries on and on). All are well up to the wry representation of lovers’ caprices here. What Edward Sayer in particular does with the comedy physically makes for an irresistible effect, but we might appreciate Barrie more with slightly fewer clenched fists. Robin Hooper as Lob is more understated than I would have expected, but by the end he conveys the raw, ambiguous power of the orchestrator of the singular event in Dear Brutus.
Though times and language have changed, and the long scene between Dearth (Miles Richardson, who has the best nose of anyone in this play for looking down on others) and his ‘might-have-been’ (Venice van Someren) is nearly awkward to us now as a result, we still care about what the play has to say about all these characters – namely, that they are very much separate, for all their paths cross each other, and it is this that they and we must face, with acceptance and compassion. In this way, Dear Brutus escapes becoming overly moralistic, or too clear. It contains a lesson, but much more besides.
It’s a disservice to describe Dear Brutus as Peter Pan for grown-ups, despite the themes and melancholy they share. More than anything, Barrie here has the power to unnerve me. On first read of the play, it was the way he describes the scene as suddenly and immaculately altered at the end of the Act I, and Lob’s abrupt push of Matey into the woods which stayed with me as somehow disturbing. Jonathan O’Boyle’s choice of ending this production with Margaret and Lob, the two characters for whom the message of the play has no meaning, for different reasons, also rang true with me. I’m grateful that Troupe chose this largely forgotten play. I, at least, am satisfied.
Dear Brutus is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until the 30th December. For more information and tickets, see southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/dear-brutus/.