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Dear Brutus

by on 22 January 2022

Ourselves, or Our Stars?

Dear Brutus

by J. M. Barrie

Questors Theatre at The Studio, Ealing until 29th January

Review by Nick Swyft

‘The fault, dear Brutus, is in ourselves, not in our stars.’  This is the keystone of Dear Brutus, by J.M. Barrie.  A group of people have been invited to a country house on midsummer’s eve by the mysterious Lob.  In Act One, we learn about the ‘faults in themselves’ and how these have led each to the current state of their lives.  Magic as an elemental force doesn’t try to fix things.  It shows them how things would have been different if they had chosen an alternative path.

But who is Lob?  Is he trying to help or hurt them, or is he merely stirring the pot for his own pleasure?  His Butler Jim Matey (Simon Higginson), certainly feels that he is using it to keep him trapped, and advises the others ‘not to go into the wood’.  There isn’t a wood within twelve miles of the place, but of course this is a magic wood that only appears on midsummer’s eve.  Since nearly all the characters are in some way disappointed with their lives, it is clear that when the wood does appear, following the butler’s advice is the last thing on their minds.

Once in the wood the characters have no memory of their lives in the ‘real world’, although their personalities remain the same.  Jack Purdie, who is being unfaithful to his wife Mabel (Sally Parker) with Joanna Trout (Arabella Jackson) finds the roles of wife and mistress have been reversed, and now pursues his former wife with all the passion that he pursued Joanna.

In real life, the artist Will Dearth (David Hovatter) despises himself having abandoned his art and turned to drink.  His wife Alice (Alex McDevitt) despises him too, and they both wonder if things might have been different if they’d had a child.  In the wood, Will sticks to his true calling as an artist, and has a loving daughter Margaret (Mia Lepper).  He is happy, but Alice, who had different aspirations, finds that things don’t work out the way she expected and is penniless.

We learn why Lob has kept his butler Matey in his service, since he would have become a ruthless financier, thinking nothing of ruining people’s lives.  Best to keep him as a butler limited to petty pilfering!  The irony is that in the wood he is married to Lady Caroline Laney (Nicola Littlewood), whose snobbery sees her despising the butler in the first act.

Finally, the long-suffering Mr Coade has gone into the woods alone in a spirit of curiosity, having left his wife, content, back at the house.  He now dances joyfully through the woods, playing a flute.

In the final act, they return to the house one by one, believing that they are who they were in the woods.  Their memories slowly return and lessons are learned.  Maybe they will change as a result, maybe they won’t or don’t have to.  Only Will’s daughter Margaret is left in the woods, since she never existed in the real world, and her last line as she begs her father not to return to the house tugs at the heart.  “I don’t want to be a ‘might have been’”.

Barrie wrote this play in 1916 after Peter Pan had made him famous, and the Great War was at its height.  To some it seems curious that there is no mention at all of the war, but then in times like that people want escapism – as perhaps we do now.

The acting and costumes in this production were exemplary, and Questor’s smaller Studio theatre provided an intimate environment that forced the audience to engage with the action, and perhaps reflect.  Special mention should go out particularly to Arabella Jackson, for her portrayal of the deliciously catty mistress Joanna Trout, and to David Hovatter who was very convincing as the disillusioned drunk Will Dearth in the real world, but loving father in the alternative one.

This production is not only very entertaining, it also gives each and every one of us food for thought.  Should we blame our misfortunes on things we have little control of, or should we be looking at our own natures?

Nick Swyft, January 2022

Photography by Jane Arnold-Foster

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