Writer: James Kettle
Directors: Didi Hopkins and Selina Cadell
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
When one thinks of David Tomlinson, one probably thinks of Mr Banks in Mary Poppins, for Tomlinson by then had already carved his niche playing, as he described them, ‘my dim-witted upper-class twit performances’. And when one hears that there’s to be a play celebrating the life of Tomlinson and that Miles Jupp is to play him, one can’t help but nod and think, ‘Ah yes, of course. Who else?’ And the expectations implied in that thought are more than fulfilled by Jupp’s tour de force performance in James Kettle’s show, The Life I Lead. Even the background music as one enters the auditorium has been chosen with perfection to complement the persona of Tomlinson.
While one may think of Tomlinson fondly through the lens of his characters, his own life fades into the background; Jupp succeeds in bringing the man behind the twit to glorious life. And as one might expect, it’s a self-effacing Tomlinson who appears before us to chat about his life. The fourth wall isn’t so much broken as reduced to rubble: the illusion that Tomlinson is actually there is so powerful that when he asks the audience, ‘Did you see my film….’ several audience members are moved to respond. And The Life I Lead does start off as a set of filmic reminiscences that drive the early narrative. The script is full of light and shade and the audience is carried along by Jupp, who provides belly laughs cheek by jowl with sombre, thoughtful moments, including a brief account of his tragic first marriage.
But at its heart, The Life I Lead is actually about family: specifically, fathers and sons. We learn of Tomlinson’s often difficult relationship with the distant, stern autocrat everyone called CST. CST loved nothing more than discussing the life of Napoleon – using his heroic exploits to illustrate the perceived shortcomings of his children – and his fruitless search for the perfect slice of roast beef. But CST harboured a secret that led to a number of perplexing exchanges, a secret that Kettle hints at before the grand, and mildly bizarre, reveal after the interval. We also learn of Tomlinson’s conscious decision to be the antithesis of his own father with his children, and the difficulty he had in fulfilling that with Willy, his son who drove him to distraction through his inability to communicate: a facet of Willy’s autism. But that story, at least, has an uplifting ending as they find what Tomlinson describes as ‘an angel’ who takes Willy into her school and enables him to start to communicate on his own terms.
Along the way, there are, of course, funny anecdotes – for example, about Tomlinson’s courtship with second wife, Audrey and his friendship with Walt Disney; and his discussion of his latter-day agent, Harry Gunnell, is nothing short of hilarious.
In a one-man show, one is uniquely exposed, but Jupp carries it off with the panache one might expect of Tomlinson himself: indeed, such is Jupp’s characterisation that it’s easy to forget that one is watching a man some 72 years younger than Tomlinson. Kettle’s script bounces along, while the direction of Didi Hopkins and Selina Cadell ensures that it zings even while playing havoc with our emotions. A simple set and lighting design from Lee Newby and Matthew England respectively enhance the action while never detracting.
One might expect The Life I Lead to be a light-hearted romp through the professional life of a distinguished character actor and it doesn’t disappoint in that respect – but it is so much more as the bones of the two relationships are laid bare, leaving us with much to talk about after the show.
Runs Until 14 March 2019 | Image: Piers Foley