This is going to date me: I remember Brief Lives in its original incarnation from the late 1960s in London. Patrick Garland's adaptation from the reminiscences of the 17th-century antiquary John Aubrey provided Roy Dotrice with the first of a series of acclaimed one-man shows. Now the veteran actor and his writer-director have revised and revived the play for another go.
Aubrey was a magpie as far as collecting facts and fantasies was concerned, and was equally unconcerned whether or not one was the other, or both at once. Simon Higlett's towering set reflects this, a ramshackle timbered room crowded with books and bibelots as well as all the detritus of an old man living alone with a past but no future. In its own way, the setting is the play as much as its performer.
Dotrice is mesmerising as Aubrey, doddering from chair to desk to joint-stool, mulling his claret, putting a taper to candles as night closes in on both light and life. He’s on stage all the time, including during the interval and it's as though the audience, drawn into Aubrey's world from ours like so many time travellers, is willing the old man to take us deeper into those eccentric "living histories".
Here we’ve been given a believable space in an actual time. Offstage sounds remind us that 17th-century London had noisy as well as nosey neighbours, not to mention generally louche behaviour as much in public as well as privately.
There has been a broadening of the humour since those first performances 40 years ago as well as this sense that Aubrey does not exist in his own time capsule, however much part of him wants to do so. It's a measure of Dotrice's authority in the part that any exasperation with the old man's repetitions is muted by affection.
"When the Civil War came, the fairies vanished," laments Aubrey as he recalls a past which has not simply departed but one that can never be reconstituted. Theatre, live performance itself, has the same attribute in many ways, but Dotrice in this revival shows us that magic can be recaptured, if only for two hours in a playhouse.
- Anne Morley-Priestman (reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester)