J M Barrie's drama of self-revelation

Dear Brutus
Nottingham Playhouse

Aside from Peter Pan, we pay scant attention to the plays of J M Barrie. He is seen as sexless, whimsical, sentimental. There is some truth in that but he was also one of the oddest, most original voices in 20th-century British drama. And, as Nottingham's excellent revival of this 1917 play proves, he had a poetic feeling for loss and deprivation.

Original may seem a strange word to apply to a work that has strong echoes of A Midsummer Night's Dream, with which it plays in repertory here. The setting is a country-house with a garden bathed in midsummer moonlight, owned by an aged Puck known as Lob. His carefully chosen house-guests include a reckless philanderer and his neglected wife, an alcoholic artist married to a childless snob, and a disdainful female aristo.

In the middle-act the characters find themselves, at Lob's behest, in an echanted wood where they get a second chance to live out their illusions. When they return it is to discover that they are the victims of character rather than fate and that they would always take life's wrong turning.

You could accuse Barrie of pyschological determinism, though oddly Jeremy Sams's adaptation omits a line referring to "the ones with the thin bright faces" who do actually change their lives. But I was struck by Barrie's huge influence on later dramatists - this is the precursor of Priestley's time-plays and Ayckbourn's comic meditations on chance. Barrie also dramatises, with bruising honesty, his own obsession with childhood innocence and emotional loss.

In the wood the drunken painter, appropriately named Dearth, encounters the daughter, Margaret, he never had, and underneath the archness of their exchanges ("Fame is rot, daughters are the thing") you hear Barrie's extraordinary private desolation. Like Peter Pan, he was the boy who never grew up and was clearly wracked by his sexual impotence.

It is a play full of self-revelation. It is also bizarrely comic, so much so that when the vain philanderer announced that his wife didn't understand him a raucous voice from the stalls cried out "she knows what you're up to". But Richard Baron's production works precisely because it acknowledges the work's pantomimic excesses while capturing its haunting magic.

Edward Lipscomb has designed a beautiful set that takes us from a darkened, oak-panelled drawing-room to a moonlit wood. And there are strong performances from Angus Lennie, looking like an aged, velvet-breeched Fauntleroy, as the mischievous Lob, from Gareth Thomas as the childless artist and Veronica Leer as his fantasy-daughter. One of Sams's best interpolations is to have her return at the end and beat vainly on the locked drawing-room windows. That moment, with its obvious echoes of Peter Pan, reminds us that Barrie was the 20th-century's supreme poet of arrested development.

In rep until October 21. Box Office: 0115 941 9419.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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