The Life I Lead – Wyndhams Theatre, London

Writer: James Kettle

Director: Selina Cadell and Didi Hopkins

Reviewer: David Guest

Walt Disney regarded him as the epitome of an English gentleman. For 40 years cinema audiences enjoyed the celebrated character actor in some 50 films, many coming to see him as a surrogate father after he played Mr Banks in Mary Poppins in 1964.

Not many will have realised the sadness behind the smiles in the life of David Tomlinson, nor  appreciated the genuine warmth of an actor so often called upon to be aloof or to play the buffoon in what he once described himself as “dim-witted, upper-class twit performances.”

In the affectionate retrospective of his life and career, The Life I Lead, we are treated to a portrait of the actor and the man and surely come away feeling we know and admire him all the more.

The one-man show has rightly been greeted with considerable acclaim since it premiered in Exeter in February and after a national tour it has been given the chance to wow West End audiences with a week-long visit to Wyndham’s Theatre.

It succeeds on every conceivable level: from script, performance and direction to design and music and is – as Mary Poppins might have said herself – practically perfect in every way.

Actor, comedian and writer Miles Jupp totally inhabits the role of a self-effacing and mischievous Tomlinson, with striking vocal and physical similarities, conjuring up moments of humour and pathos effortlessly. It is a sunny and avuncular performance played out in the most delightful way, remembering wartime experience, memories of fellow actors (there’s some hilarious remarks about Peter Ustinov and generous recollections of Julie Andrews) and his working and social relationship with Disney. He also expresses a gregarious amiability in his response to fans and the general public – even to the greeting of one autograph-hunter, “I thought you’d died in 1975!”

It is the sort of well-judged solo performance of which Alec McCowen was the paradigm in the 1970s and 80s discovering the essence of an individual and helping the audience enjoy fresh insight into the heart of the man.

But James Kettle’s careful and delicate script also has its darker undercurrents, with its frank revelations about Tomlinson’s his stern solicitor father (known as CST), his troubled first wife and his autistic son.  These are not presented as sensational exposés, rather as facets of a fascinating and well-adjusted character who in his own way carved his niche in the edifice of time.

Didi Hopkins and Selina Cadell’s direction allows Jupp to make the most of building an intense relationship with the audience, ensuring that the man who became an icon of so many childhoods never loses a very human touch.

Lee Newby’s glorious sky blue and cloud white set, with a scattering of bowler hats and door featuring a carved out silhouette of Tomlinson, is suggestive of a heavenly waiting room, while Matthew England’s lighting skilfully captures the range of emotions described and portrayed. Eliza Thompson’s music is a joy, twinkling titbits of lighthearted joviality plus accompaniment to Jupp’s performance of the title song, woven so nimbly into the narrative throughout.

It is rare to find an exceptional piece of theatre so impressive, absorbing, illuminating, enriching and entertaining as The Life I Lead and it is, without a shadow of doubt, unmissable.

Runs until September 21 2019 | Image: Piers Foley

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