Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Brief Lives’ by Patrick Garland at The Wightman Theatre in Shrewsbury until Saturday 9th June and again from June 13th to 16th.
The 17th Century’s John Aubrey was the gossip columnist of his day, writing about who has begat who and who has been hung, drawn and quartered and had his liver preserved for posterity (one of The Wightman Theatre’s more unusual props). He’s concerned about the decline of the Nation’s moral compass since good old Queen Bess died and the insidious progress of the plague. He’s also cataloguing the population’s foolhardy reliance on curious cures, such as ‘The Drench’.
Audrey sits in his fusty, russet chamber; surrounded by the accumulated clutter of his long life. Adrian Monahan’s solo performance pulls on the doddery old man’s persona like a pair of well-worn slippers. His stories gather momentum like a passing wave, cresting with a punchline or putdown, before subsiding again. He dishes the dirt on Sir Walter Raleigh (“a piggy-eyed wencher”) and castigates the brother of the Earl of Shrewsbury for failing to catch a young lady who threw herself from the top of Shrewsbury Abbey.
It’s a lovely performance, as he tells his tales with a merry countenance and twinkling eye.
The episodic play cries out for a worthwhile through line, but the snippets are engaging and charmingly enlightening about an era normally only described by courtiers and generals. The recurring theme is the Civil War, but instead of the victor’s propaganda, we hear how London was ablaze with bonfires as the church bells are smelted into cannons.
Director Beverley Baker preserves the play’s nice touches. Halfway through, Aubrey falls asleep in his chair and the audience has to creep out to the bar without disturbing him…and then creep back in again, 20 minutes later.
All in all, Aubrey’s ‘Brief Lives’ are very brief…but beautifully observed.
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