Lee Newby’s Magritte inspired set provides the ideal backdrop for James Kettle’s cleverly crafted play. The blue sky and cirrus whites are mirrored in the floor and furniture: the bowler hats are made for the character of David Tomlinson.
This is the most recent collaboration between James Kettle and Miles Jupp – the two having worked together on Radio 4’s The News Quiz with James Kettle as the main writer, and Miles Jupp the presenter.
Tomlinson is best known for playing the upper class Mr Banks in Mary Poppins and a few other Disney films in the 60s. What isn’t well known, and what this play empathetically looks at is his strained relationship with his father, and the challenges of having an autistic son – at a time when the condition wasn’t recognised.
Miles Jupp is perfectly cast as David Tomlinson in these reminiscences of ‘family, films and fatherhood’ He brings warmth and pathos to the part, and with his comic timing has the audience in the palm of his hand. His easy going temperament allows him to accurately play a man who faced challenges with grace, albeit with the good old stiff upper lip of the times. How much of this stiff upper lip covered things up we can only guess, but what prevails is Tomlinson’s determination to break the parental mould.
It’s not a tear-jerking play – the comedy moments are too frequent for that – but nevertheless the comedy/tragedy balance is spot on. We are allowed to see the coldness of the relationship with the father (known only as FST even to the family) and the difficulties of having an autistic child, whilst being able to see the funny side. It is to the writer’s credit that the many excellent gags don’t distract from the serious points.
The one-liners are very good and are mainly ‘in’ jokes. As they are often about the characteristics of actors in the 60s, or about the theatre in general, The Life I Lead probably won’t appeal to everybody: It is an actors’ play, or at least a regular theatregoer’s play. If that is you, it is hugely enjoyable. Tonight’s audience definitely loved every minute.
Review by Mike Stephenson
Best remembered for playing ‘Mr Banks’ in Disney’s classic film Mary Poppins and ‘Professor Emelius Browne’ in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, British actor David Tomlinson was renowned for playing the classic English gent: forthright, proper, and a loveable fool. His meeting with Walt Disney came to encapsulate his incredible life full of adventure and heartbreak. The Life I Lead sees Miles Jupp bringing David Tomlinson’s remarkable story to life.
As a World War Two fighter pilot, his early life contained action and adventure; but he suffered huge heartbreak with the tragic death of his first wife, and his fight to have his son Willie recognised as one of the first British cases of autism. The man who portrayed one of cinema’s most famous patriarchs was also defined by his relationship with his own father – a remote eccentric, who was hiding an extraordinary tragicomic secret.
THE LIFE I LEAD
Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Rd, Covent Garden, London WC2H 0DA
Dates: 16 – 21 September 2019
Press night: Wednesday 18 September, 7.30pm
Running time: 2 hours including an interval.