The Life I Lead
Reviewed – 18th September 2019
“manages to combine laugh-out-loud dry asides with moments of remarkable honesty and sweetness”
‘What is it and when does it start?’ We at first meet Miles Jupp as actor David Tomlinson as if by accident, as he appears awkwardly trying to leave the stage and apologising for the disruption with typically English deference. In a meta twist which never feels strained or tedious, we’re watching a comic actor play a comic actor reflecting on his life – a life that has lots to teach us about fatherhood, identity and ultimately resilience and love.
Tomlinson is best known as that most English and famous of cinematic fathers, Mr Banks, in the 1964 childhood staple Mary Poppins. The shape of Mr Banks in negative, a silhouette cut out of a door, and tumbling bowler hats are on stage throughout The Life I Lead (also Mr Banks’ signature song) – reminders of a character always present.
In fact, Englishness is shot through James Kettle’s charming script, with plenty of self-deprecating humour and grappling with emotional closeness – and who could pull this off better than that most English of comics, Miles Jupp? The piece, written for Jupp, manages to combine laugh-out-loud dry asides with moments of remarkable honesty and sweetness.
Direction, from Selina Cadell and Didi Hopkins, feels confident, always working in service to Kettle’s writing. The quality script is the star here, with Jupp magnificently animating the cast of characters that populated Tomlinson’s fascinating life. A courtroom set piece where we see Jupp flash between a hoary old judge, an orating lawyer and Tomlinson himself is so remarkable as to receive spontaneous applause.
Lee Newby’s set is simple, invoking a dream-like drawing room which might be a kind of heaven. Certainly Tomlinson tells us that drawing rooms are his sanctuary, querying with the dry wit that characterises the night whether it was worth fighting the Second World War only to lose drawing rooms, and laments his sons’ choices of ‘lounges’ instead. The floor, ceiling and walls are dappled with the shapes of passing clouds, and this is apt; the production reflects deeply on flight and on falls.
Jupp is by turns hilarious and reflective as we hear about Tomlinson’s life and his experiences (so often airborne, like Mary Poppins herself), from the RAF to the plane crash later in life that saw him in court. And we hear about falls of a different kind, including the tragic suicide of Tomlinson’s first wife and his own father’s staggering fall from grace.
Most touchingly, we also explore parenting. We see a father who struggles and one who succeeds, and – like Mr Banks himself – we ultimately see redemption. This is a night with a touch of magic; Mary Poppins would approve.
Reviewed by Abi Davies
Photography by Piers Foley
The Life I Lead
Wyndham’s Theatre until 21st September
Previously reviewed at this venue: