It's all too easy to sneer at JM Barrie

Dear Brutus | Nottingham Playhouse
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It's all too easy to sneer at JM Barrie - for the feyness that sets the teeth on edge and the dense Scotch mist that tends to swirl around his imaginative landscape. But anyone who has seen Peter Pan (the genuine version, not the Disney abortion and its clones) would readily admit that he's a dramatist who can hit raw nerves other playwrights either fail to locate or overlook.

It's all too easy to sneer at JM Barrie - for the feyness that sets the teeth on edge and the dense Scotch mist that tends to swirl around his imaginative landscape. But anyone who has seen Peter Pan (the genuine version, not the Disney abortion and its clones) would readily admit that he's a dramatist who can hit raw nerves other playwrights either fail to locate or overlook.

Children bring out in him all the primal hang-ups that it was his gift to convert into enchanting and upsetting myth. If Peter Pan is "The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up", then Margaret, the "boyish figure of a girl" in his play Dear Brutus is "The Girl Who Could Not Grow Up", because she is only really the piercing fantasy projection of a childless couple.

Revived now in a handsome and finely acted production by Richard Baron, the piece is one of those dramas that take their characters on a temporary trip into an alternative world of might-have-beens. The play is running in rep with A Midsummer Night's Dream, a comedy to which it is openly indebted. Lob (Angus Lennie), the ancient little Scots leprechaun of a man who has gathered a house party to be the guinea pigs for this midsummer experiment, is in fact Puck, as he might have been if he had gone on to live forever. This oldster's cloying, chatty relationship with flowers makes you feel Prince Charles and his plants have been much maligned.

On Edward Lipscomb's beautiful set, the large central window above some steps resembles a curtained inner stage leading to the moonlit wood which, like some spectral touring fair, always plants itself in the vicinity for just one night on this crucial date. Drawn into this parallel-universe forest are Lob's guests. These include an unhappy ménage à trois orchestrated by a man who knows how to philander but not how to feel, and a middle-aged artist, bloated with port and a sense of failure, and his bitter spouse (very well played by Gareth Thomas and Sandra Duncan) who wound one another with talk of how their relationship might have been better - or worse - if they had had a child.

Of course, the daughter-who-never-was materialises in the middle act. Unfortunately, in Veronica Leer's over-grotesque performance, she emerges in a manner that puts you in mind of the late, great Jimmy Clitheroe. Like Peter Pan at the window, she is the last person we see in this production, calling desperately for her father but barred from existence by the panes of glass. That brilliant image is not in Barrie's stage directions and I take it to be the invention of Jeremy Sams, who has intelligently tweaked and adapted the original for this outing, heightening our awareness of the strange psychic forces at work in it and increasing the Bardic echoes.

The shape of the piece, which returns in the third act to readjusted normality, is also Shakespearean. But where the whole of life lies before the young lovers in the Dream, life has already taken irreversible wrong turnings for the personnel in Dear Brutus. That's the play's brilliant twist and it results in such a fertile, characteristically unsettling mix of comic whimsy and emotional agony that it makes JB Priestley and Alan Ayckbourn look tidy-minded in such cognate works as Time and the Conways and Time of My Life.

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