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Sunday, July 3, 2022

“A little-known gem”

Thomas Player gives four stars to 'Dear Brutus', an underrated classic

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

Long before this quotation from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar inspired the novel The Fault in Our Stars and the subsequent sniffle-making film, J.M. Barrie took inspiration for Dear Brutus.

The set-up for this rarely performed 1917 play bears a striking resemblance to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which it predates by twenty years: a group of seemingly disparate yet well-off strangers arrive at the house of a mysterious friend they scarcely know. The difference here is that (spoiler alert) this play doesn’t finish with most of the cast dead.

Piece by piece we learn that what all the characters want most of all is a second chance: from the unhappily married couple to the lazy old cad, the philandering husband to the aspirational butler. Sure enough that’s exactly what they get—the chance to see how different their lives could have been.

This opportunity arrives in a fantastical style which undeniably came from the same pen as Peter Pan and Neverland, as they are presented with their alternative lives in a magical wood on Midsummer’s Eve.

A nice enough idea, if a little quaint, and so I was hardly brimming with excitement as the play began. The opening is somewhat tedious, with the characters introduced slowly and one-by-one, but give it a chance and this little-known gem will start to grow on you.

The characters span the complete spectrum of upper class Edwardian stereotypes, and this was played to its full advantage with a pleasing amount of humour: at times it verges on farcical and there’s a decent amount of camp. Perhaps that’s not your cup of tea, but the audience certainly loved it and I did too.

But this is far from plain comedy—there is a real melancholy at the heart of this play. Each of the characters must confront their personal alternate reality, and this is hardly easy. The ‘parallel universe’ idea could seem hackneyed to a modern audience, but I can imagine that when first performed it must have been quite exciting.

This production managed to strike the balance perfectly between comedy and poignancy—it was never cloying but always genuine and heartfelt. This is a credit to the fantastic ensemble cast. There were no weak links and some cracking standout performances. I was very impressed with all the actors’ versatility for comedy and tragedy, which is not always seen in student productions.

There are some real belly laughs to be had, but the best moments in this play are surprisingly touching. Without giving away anything, trust me when I say that I have never seen mime used so devastatingly (and that’s a sentence I didn’t think I’d be writing this week).

The production isn’t perfect—the story demands more dramatic changes in scenery than a student production allows. This could have been combatted with careful use of lighting and sound, but this aspect of the play seemed a little under-rehearsed, which was a shame. However, I’d be quite happy to put this down to first night jitters, and the simple staging only served to accentuate the fantastic performances.

The chance to find a new classic is rare: in the age of the internet it’s perhaps even rarer. Dear Brutus doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and so it’s a joy to go and discover this fantastic play live. The best times at the theatre are those unexpected moments when you realise you’ve discovered a new favourite—Dear Brutus has certainly become one of mine.

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