Gareth Thomas in Dear Brutus

by Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph.

There are some, myself included, who regard JM Barrie's Peter Pan not just as a Christmas entertainment but as one of the greatest - and oddest - plays of the 20th century.

The Nottingham Playhouse has now done a signal service by reviving Barrie's virtually forgotten late play, Dear Brutus (1917), and revealing it as another haunting masterpiece by this strange, sentimental, deeply unsettling writer. The action is set in the handsome, wood-panelled drawing-room of an English country house, to which a group of guests have been invited by a mysterious, gnome-like old man called Lob.

It is midsummer night, and the guests compare him to Puck in old age, though he could equally be Peter Pan, if Peter had ever suffered the misfortune of growing old. As in an Agatha Christie whodunit, none of the guests are quite sure why they have been invited. What on earth have the sharp, middle-aged Mrs Dearth and her alcoholic husband, a snobbish young flapper, a thieving butler, a philandering husband, his wife and mistress, and a sweet old bufffer married to a sweet old lady got in common?

The answer is revealed at the end of Act 1 - they all feel they have taken a wrong turn in life, and they all want a second chance. And in the second act they get it. The garden outside the house is mysteriously replaced by a moonlit wood and, as the characters venture through the French windows, they stumble, like the lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream, into a world of magic and confusion and unexpected possibilities.

The snobbish flapper finds herself happily married to the butler, now a rich financier. The philanderer is now having an affair with his wife and it is his mistress who is jealous. Most movingly of all - and this is archetypal Barrie - the alcoholic Dearth finds that he is now a happy, healthy artist with a loving, much-loved teenaged daughter.

Barrie, who had no children of his own, did have the Llewellyn Davies boys who inspired so much of his work. The play's Margaret might be their sister, and the account of this idyllic, fictitious parent-child relationship is both shamelessly sentimental and almost unbearably moving.

The play's title is taken from another Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar, and the lines "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/But in ourselves, that we are underlings". As the characters return to reality in the third and final act, Barrie poses profound questions about whether it is actually possible to change our lives, change our characters. The piece has been lightly, and largely unnecessarily, "adapted" by the ubiquitous Jeremy Sams, though he has added a stunning final image, inspired by Peter Pan, that sends shivers racing down the spine.

Richard Baron directs a beguiling, consistently compelling production, beautifully capturing the cut-glass accents and manners of the Edwardian upper-middle classes, with ravishing designs by Edward Lipscomb. The country house is a masterpiece of detailed solidity, and the moment when it vanishes to be replaced by the enchanted forest is a beautiful and breathtaking coup de théâtre.

The whole cast - who are also appearing in a companion production of A Midsummer Night's Dream - shine. I especially liked Sarah Hadland as the vicious flapper, Gareth Thomas as the drunk who suddenly discovers brief, unlooked-for happiness, Sandra Duncan as his understandably sour wife and Angus Lennie as the tiny, ancient, mysterious Lob.

It is great to see a regional theatre offering such a rare revival - thrilling, unexpected discoveries such as this make my job worthwhile.

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Last updated on 22nd of October 2000.