Brief Lives, a one man show in which an ageing part-time writer and full-time gossip reminisces about his life, was one of the surprise hits of the 70s. Roy Dotrice made the part of John Aubrey, a kind of seventeenth century Nigel Dempster, his own.
As we approach the end of the 20th century, it has been deemed appropriate to revive the show, adapted and directed by Patrick Garland, based on Aubrey s own memoirs. The estimable Michael Williams, husband of Dame Judi Dench, now fills Dotrice s shoes.
When a show from this period is billed as a bawdy outrageous romp, you know exactly what you re going to get. Sooner or later there will be remarks about breeches, chamber pots, wenches and farting - which is of course what you get. The real John Aubrey, who lived in what is probably the most momentous century in British history and knew and wrote about many of the major characters, is depicted as a shabby, loose-witted wastrel.
Dwarfed by a set resembling a 17th century Steptoe s yard, Aubrey rails against noisy neighbours, crying babies and the manners of the young, but there is little evidence of the acute social observer that he was, and there is only scant reference to his role as collector of antiquities. Nor is there much reference to his position as one of the first oral historians. In short, this is an extremely one-sided depiction of one of history s more fascinating characters.
Having said that, Williams does an admirable job of portraying Aubrey as the garrulous old man that Garland s script demands. He relishes the gossip and cackles at his memories but still manages to convey the sadness of a man who knows his long life is nearly run.
Certainly, the audience at the Duchess seemed to love Brief Lives, delighting in the jokes and the gossip - at times there was almost a pantomime atmosphere. As a result, Williams received (and earned) a generous ovation for this one-man tour-de force. Nevertheless, I still think that Aubrey deserves a better epitaph than this.
Maxwell Cooter, March 1998