Brief Lives @ Richmond Theatre, London

cast list
Roy Dotrice

adapted & directed by
Patrick Garland
By the time I began my theatregoing in the mid seventies, Roy Dotrice’s portrayal of John Aubrey in the one-man show Brief Lives was already legendary and it seemed then that the chance to see it was long gone. How extraordinary then that now, over 30 years later, at 84 and far closer to the age of the character he plays, the actor should have revived the piece for an all too short tour.

John Aubrey was an historian and chronicler whose life spanned most of the 17th Century. Born in 1625, he lived through a period of tremendous upheaval in English history that included the Civil War, the beheading of Charles I, the puritanical Interregnum and establishment of parliamentary democracy, the explosion of licence that followed the restoration of the monarchy, the Plague and Great Fire of London and the religious ricocheting that followed the death of Charles II. His contemporaries included John Milton, Samuel Pepys and John Bunyan.

Amidst this earthquake of change and social and artistic progress, Aubrey was the fastidious collector of historical ephemera and biographical tittle-tattle. His memoirs and jottings, at least those parts selected by Patrick Garland who also directs Brief Lives, were meanderings through the tiny personal details that make up a fascinating microcosm of life in the hundred or so years leading up to Aubrey’s death in 1697.

The old man reminisces about tales he was told “when I was a boy, before the Civil Wars”, linking him with the great personages of the Elizabethan age: Sir Walter Raleigh, the Queen herself and a randy young actor/playwright by the name of William Shakespeare. In a delightfully dotty performance, Dotrice rambles his way through an inconsequential flow of yarns, everyday events and gossip that would be raw and dripping meat to today’s tabloids.

It’s an endearing, often very funny and ultimately poignant characterisation that somehow brings history alive by focusing on the minutiae of life in former times while swerving well clear of any detailed historical context. The picture builds up out of a fine tapestry of memory and personal comment. With bodily functions a major theme, the veteran actor has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand, some beautifully stage-managed “ad-libs” enhancing the playfulness.

Simon Higlett’s marvellous set, as decrepit as its occupant, has history dripping from every corner; each object cramming the musty room has its own story to tell.

As the last of just five dates on a brief tour, this run in Richmond should not be missed by anyone wanting to experience a thoroughly enjoyable delve into history and, more importantly, a great piece of character acting.

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