Paul T Davies reviews James Kettle’s play The Life I Lead about actor David Tomlinson now playing at Park Theatre, London.
The Life I Lead.
19 March 2019
Transferring to Wyndham’s Theatre in September 2019
James Kettle’s new play explores the life of actor David Tomlinson, still best known to millions as Mr. Banks in Disney’s 1964 classic Mary Poppins. The programme notes citeswhat David Tomlinson, Mr. Banks and performer Miles Jupp have in common. It’s a long list, and add to it Bags of Charm and Superb Comic Timing and the list is then complete. What threatens to be an entertaining but slight evening is given depth by Kettle’s script and Jupp’s hugely enjoyable performance. For, like all families, there are truths hidden, and these are revealed skilfully in a well structured play.
On a beautiful, Magritte inspired set by designer Lee Newby, Tomlinson talks to us, maybe from Heaven, maybe from limbo as this could be the night he died in 2000. From the off, Miles Jupp connects with the audience with the removal of the fourth wall, and the play has a wry acknowledgment of Tomlinson’s skills and abilities- he knew his limits and played the “quiet clown” so well. Jupp has captured him perfectly, both vocally and physically, and in places the play feels like being in the green room with a lovely old actor regaling us with anecdotes from his career- and there are many, with some great one liners!
But what gives the play depth is that it is about fathers and sons, in particular David’s complicated relationship with his distant, highly English father. The shocking revelation is that his father had to be distant because he was a bigamist, and lived half his life with another wife and family. How the Tomlinson’s found out is extraordinary, and the play nails “stiff upper lip” English stoicism. And then there is the relationship between David and his son, William, possibly one of the first children ever to be diagnosed with autism. These moments are shared beautifully, void of hysteria and melodrama, and no less powerful for that. Jupp handles the changes of tone superbly, and the responsibility Tomlinson felt for being a part of so many childhood memories, (he also had huge hits with Bedknobs and Broomsticks and The Love Bug, the biggest grossing British film of 1969), is tenderly conveyed, you can’t help think that he must have been a lovely man.
If the production feels a little “Old School” and traditional, for me that is its strength. It was actually refreshing to see a solo show that isn’t over loaded with angst, and celebrates not just a great actor, but a loving father, and love itself. The magic of film is also celebrated, and hence provides quite a magical evening in the company of Mr. Tomlinson.
Until 30 March 2019