Dear Brutus

Date 19th November 2018
Society Jewish Theatre Group Manchester
Venue St Monica's Theatre
Type of Production Play
Director Stacey Friedman

Report

Author: Stephanie Niland (on behalf of Kevin Proctor)

A wonderfully warm welcome awaited me at St Monica’s RCHS Theatre Centre ahead of The JTC’s production of Dear Brutus by J. M Barrie. What a lovely venue with a great acting space.

Only armed with a familiarity of Peter Pan and all its associations, I was looking forward to expanding my knowledge on J. M. Barrie and his works. With a little read-up on Dear Brutus and a brief pre-show chat with Stacey Friedman, the director, I felt intrigued and ready to embrace another fantastical adventure from this imaginative writer.

The open set greeted us as we entered the auditorium. It was a clever amalgamation of a rich drawing room and the magical woods that come into to effect later in the play . Having the open and combined set was an inspired decision-it allowed us to concentrate on the ‘why’ and ‘what’ of the story and characters, rather than the ‘how’ of set design and theatrics. It would have been difficult to transform the drawing room into a magical wood completely and would have been unnecessary for the action and storyline. When the characters, and the audience, entered the woods, small changes occurred. The trees that were stationed outside the windows came inside, translucent material was draped over the furniture-so as to make sure it didn’t quite disappear, a carpet of grass and a scattering of flowers depicted a glen and the lighting ensured a dappled outdoor ambience was created. It could be argued that the whole design was hinting that this group of guests hadn’t actually left the house...was it a midsummer dream or some party fuelled experience? Whatever the thinking behind it, it worked-well done!

The opening scene saw all the female guests in discussion about why they had all been invited to a gathering and what was the purpose of their visit. This was to lay the foundations for the characters and some established themselves effectively. Carol Bernstein’s Mrs Coade came across well as the kindly matriarch, worried about what may lie ahead. The sweet and likable Joanna played by Lynne Sellers with grace and such a watchable expressive face. Liz Reuben gave a very considered performance of Lady Caroline Laney which contrasted beautifully with her alter ego later in the play. The delightful Mabel was portrayed by Aliza Schogger with assuredness and a believability factor, your complex emotions regarding your husband’s betrayal was played with refinement and subtlety, and in a theatre that size we could read the hurt in your eyes- well done. Alice Dearth came across as the confident ring leader and from the outset we could tell she seemed to have hidden depths or a sadness that emerged from her through a hard and unyielding exterior-good job Deborah Finley! The ladies throughout the piece, gave confident performances and depicted the poise and appearance of the era. A little more light and shade and speed variance in the dialogue is all I was left wanting- it was as though they had all attended the same elocution lessons and the delivery was consistently well measured- although this did not detract from some wonderful performances on the whole.

So to the male cast! Jaysen Lewin gave us the most comic relief and came across as a delightful buffoon of a would-be poet- I really enjoyed your portrayal. John Blaskey’s Matey was a fun character whose gruff and unassuming butler was distinctively different to his upper class alter ego- I did get the feeling that there was a tentative edge to your performance but I am sure after opening night nerves were seen off that you looked up more and confidence prevailed. Mr Coade was a sweet character, with not much ambition and the benevolence came across from Michael Williams in the role- again here, you need to believe in yourself a little more and stand your ground when the focus is on you as a performer. Lob- the strange old man who invited this party of guests to his home, the puppet master and engineer of the whole affair was played with child-like innocence and cheekiness by Michael Englender- he reminded me of Willy Wonka and Grandpa Joe mixed in together and there were echoes of Barrie’s obsession with a boy who refuses to grow up!

The last two characters to discuss were my personal favourites- Margaret played by Lana Dean and Will Dearth played by Howard Yaffe. Both actors took hold of a scene/section of the play that felt completely separate to the rest. The language and script rhythm changed and so many emotional wrangles and nuances of character came through. They had a performance chemistry which allowed us to really enjoy the magic. Naturalistic and at the same time something positively Shakespearian came across. Indeed the triangle of husband and wife and ‘what might have been’ child gave rise to memories of Oberon, Titania and the Changling. Exciting.

Thank you for my adventure into the woods...It was an engaging piece that was thought provoking and entertaining. Stacey Friedman’s direction and handling of it was clever and sympathetic to the themes- I left feeling that I had actually seen a drama with comedic moments rather than the other way round as billed... and I think, that is just as it should be.