Review: The artist as incorrigible old codger

Brief Lives; Duchess Theatre
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Brief Lives

Duchess Theatre

"The personality of a writer obviously has some relevance to what he writes, particularly if he is dead and the life has been publicly discussed. But it takes great tact to know how to use gossip." Thus wrote Gore Vidal, a writer ever ready with a lofty opinion. The 20th century has become increasingly obsessed with biography, yet the seeds of tittle-tattle surrounding "Lives of the Rich and Famous" began almost 300 years ago with the positively fertile writings of John Aubrey.

"I now set things down tumultuarily, as if tumbled out of a Sack." Not published until 1813, , Aubrey's teeming collection of 17th- century biographical vignettes, is a jewel-box of glittering gossip, gleeful anecdotes and scurrilous sketches of notables and nobodies. Decades in the writing, they create a vivid and justly famed portrait of an era.

In Patrick Garland's well-honed, well-known adaptation - first seen on stage in 1967 and now newly revised - our narrator clambers from his heavily swagged four-poster bed and sets about a typically ramshackle day of intensive pottering.

Heavy wooden beams hang over Tim Goodchild's atmospherically cluttered room which looks like an unpeopled painting by Dutch artist Jan Steen. Every nook and cranny is filled with tottering piles of dusty manuscripts, mementoes and Aubrey's beloved antiquarian artefacts.

Littered with food, clothes and dishevelled furniture, it's a beautifully organised disarray mirroring the crammed feel of the book. It's like Play School of the 1690s: "Let's go through the latticed window."

Wheezing, cackling and shambling about beneath a shock of white hair, Michael Williams's impersonation of the elderly Aubrey resembles nothing so much as a 17th century cross between Catweazle and Clive Dunn in Dad's Army. Garland has him going about perfunctory ablutions and cooking himself a little breakfast before indulging in a bellyful of tales and reminiscences.

Anyone expecting an evening of miniature Hello! magazine-style "official versions" of the lives of figures such as Sir Walter Raleigh will be happily taken aback. There's the doctor who boiled his own buttock or, indeed, Raleigh, whose nephews were Aubrey's schoolmates, who we discover was given to bouts of outdoor sex (up against a tree, since you ask).

That's typical of Aubrey's eye for colour and his passion for alighting upon ordinary circumstances in order to illuminate character.

If there is a problem, it is the one endemic to most solo shows. There's humour aplenty in the succession of often salacious stories, and not a little pathos with the old man's memories of friends and loves lost, but there is a definite shortage of dramatic tension.

Williams treads a nice line between vagueness and sharp-edged comic delivery but his repertoire of vaguely Victor Meldrew-ish old man mannerisms is a shade narrow.

Ultimately, however, Garland and Williams exhibit a strangely satisfying sleight of hand. Aubrey's fame rests upon his open-hearted celebration of the lives of others. This civilised evening builds to a gently entertaining, poignant and convincing portrait of the artist as incorrigible old codger.

David Benedict