Roy's brilliant in Brief Lives

It can be truly said that Roy Dotrice has grown into the role of John Aubrey, the antiquarian diarist of Brief Lives (Theatre Royal, Brighton this week).

Not that Dotrice was ever less than brilliant as the old gossip when he began in this one man show 40 years ago. The memory of him emptying a chamber pot through a window of his London abode remains an abiding theatrical image of the 1960s.

Dotrice was middle-aged when he first played the ageing memory man who was a freshman in his youth at Oxford. He's 84 now and as ripe for the part as a crumbling blue stilton dunked in port wine.

His make-up includes a false nose and prominant front tooth but there's no need to strive for the effects of quirky old-age. As he reminisces, chuckles, winks, dribbles and creaks, he's a natural Justice Shallow entertaining an audience of friends in a Cotswold apple orchard.

He doesn't so much play Aubrey as inhabit him. Forsooth – a favourite word of the old man – he becomes him, warts, false tooth and all. He totters about Simon Higlett's dusty, evocative set, a decaying library of old tomes and dusty collectors items, and prepares a meal while chatting up the audience.

His tales outshine any redtop tabloid of today. The names dropped are not 'celebrities' who no one knows but include the likes of Walter Raleigh (as fine an Englishman as Drake even though they did cut off his head), Shakespeare and even Elizabeth I.

There's one about the Earl of Oxford who broke wind in the presence of the Queen and was so ashamed that he left the country for five years. He was warmly welcomed on his return by Elizabeth who said she'd forgotten the fart.

And another relating to Shakespeare who overheard Richard Burbage, who was playing Richard III, making an arrangement to sleep with a young woman after the performance. When Burbage arrived he was told that the author had beaten him to it because William the Conqueror came before Richard III.

Aubrey/Dotrice gets so excited at recalling the celebrations for the return of the monarchy that he collapses on stage chuckling and wheezing with delight. He also drops off to sleep and slumbers on stage throughout the interval.

At the end he stands before us as the relic of time, a collector's item himself, a man born before the Civil Wars and now happy to die because drink and debauchery reign in the land and people no longer ride but drive about the place in coaches.

Patrick Garland has adapted Aubrey's jottings and diaries so that the piece has a seamless flow, is funny and illuminating throughout, and at the end curiously sad as the candles flicker and go out.

Adding to the atmosphere are the street criers, a squaking baby and the long-haired musician in the room above playing his loot and softly singing.

Forsooth, we had been in a brilliantly functioning time capsule.

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