Magazine article The Spectator

Two Old Stagers Find Vigour in Brief Lives

Magazine article The Spectator

Two Old Stagers Find Vigour in Brief Lives

Article excerpt

In a soulless, drafty rehearsal hall just around the corner from Euston Station, Roy Dotrice is doing a reading as John Aubrey under the watchful eye of the director Patrick Garland.

The bitchy 17th-century writer and antiquarian is a character that both men have come to know very well over years.

The relationship began in 1967 when Brief Lives -- Garland's adaptation of The Memoirs, Miscellanies, Letters and Jottings of John Aubrey -- was first staged at the Hampstead Theatre.

On the West End, Broadway and around the world, Dotrice went on to play Aubrey for more than 1,700 performances which still warrants a mention in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest-running one-man show. Now these two old stagers -- Garland is 72 and Dotrice is, unbelievably, 84 -- are about to reprise the play with a run that will open at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester on 7 February and end, they hope, in the West End.

Dotrice, dressed in jeans, a Garrick tie and a blazer, is struggling with a gruesome cough, but as I arrive he delivers the play's final words in a gentle, affecting but understated way. This production is important to him. Scarcely six months ago, his beloved wife Kay died suddenly of a heart attack in Hollywood at the age of 78. They had been married for more than 60 years and it had, says Dotrice, been Kay's express wish that he should do the play.

'I'd never agree to do anything without talking to her about it first. She was a great actress herself and always knew instinctively how parts should be played. I'd started reading Aubrey through with her not long before she died. She felt I had become far too hammy in the part by the time I did my final performances in the role in 1974. I was chasing after the laughs too much. This time I am doing it the way she wanted me to. I'm getting back to basics.' Dotrice has three daughters by Kay:

Michele, who played Frank Spencer's wife in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em and, more recently, appeared in Vanity Fair; Karen, who was in the film Mary Poppins and the TV series Upstairs, Downstairs; and Yvette, who was perhaps best known for the television series Crossroads.

All three have, with their spouses, rallied round but, for all that they have helped, it has been John Aubrey who has probably been the most instrumental in getting Dotrice back on his feet again. 'I'd been discussing the idea with Patrick for a while. My initial reaction was that it would be fun to get reacquainted with Aubrey. In the event, the project has proved a godsend. It has given me a sense of direction and a sense of purpose at a time when I have desperately needed both. I wanted to start work on this as soon as possible after Kay's death as I saw it very much as my tribute to her.' The lines in the play about death have a resonance for Dotrice that they didn't have when he last uttered them on stage. He feels more compassionate towards the character who, like a lot of elderly men, lives his life in the past. 'I think actors who play the same parts over long period of time go one of two ways -- either they switch to autopilot or they get into an ever more intimate relationship with the character. I have taken the second route.' There can't be another play in the country with a star and a director who have the experience of Dotrice and Garland. The former toured with the RSC and went on to pick up, among other glittering prizes, a Tony award for A Moon for the Misbegotten on Broadway in 2000 and, remarkably, five Grammy nominations, most recently for his recording of Winnie the Pooh. …

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