“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.
“Niamh James, fresh out of drama school, does a terrific job in making Mara a real, living presence on stage”
The Park nails its colours to the mast immediately concerning the content of this play. On each seat is an A5 sheet of paper; on one side, MODERN SLAVERY AND HUMAN TRAFFICKING IN THE UK/SPOTTING THE SIGNS, and on the other, WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP, detailing how to report it, and the logos of eleven organisations that work to support victims and to end this horrific practice. Similarly, in the director’s note, just after the title page of the script, which all reviewers were kindly given at this performance, Alice Hamilton devotes one paragraph out of five to the statistics of global human trafficking – ‘a recent reckoning produced an estimated 40.3 million victims of human trafficking globally, of whom 10.1 million are children trapped in forced labour or sexual exploitation’.
This is what Eugene O’Hare has chosen to write a play about, and yet, in this play (running time two hours twenty minutes including interval), we see and hear four middle-aged men talk – frequently at length; O’Hare is fond of a long monologue – and talk and talk, whilst a teenage girl, introduced on page 35 of a 75 page script, remains mute throughout. We know she is Romanian, and that her name is Mara, but her thoughts, feelings and experiences do not exist. Niamh James, fresh out of drama school, does a terrific job in making Mara a real, living presence on stage, but it is unbelievable that in 2019, a male playwright can feel that the best way of exploring this subject is to present the only woman on stage as a passive, representative victim, whilst the men around her invite us to laugh with them and feel their fears and their personal pain. If the Bechdel test was conducted with a thermometer, the mercury would boil and the glass explode.
There is some stellar acting on display in this production. There isn’t a weak link in the five-strong cast, and Alec Newman, as the tortured (yes, have a think about that for a second) O’Rourke and David Schaal, as the terrifying Dollar, in particular, give bravura performances. There is a lot for the actors to get their teeth into; O’Hare relishes male language, whether it be quickfire banter, gangland menace or sentimental pissed-up musings. There’s no doubt that these have their charms. There are some good gags in this piece (alongside some more questionable ones) and Dollar’s nastiness is palpable, but added up, and in the light of the subject matter, it just all seems rather indulgent. The register of language is also uneven, both tonally, and in terms of time period. Dollar appears to have walked straight in from the 1950s East End of the Krays, whilst the other four characters are firmly rooted in the present (though does anyone now use the anachronistic ‘water closet’?)
James Perkins’ design works very well – it was a terrific creative touch for the outside of the stairs to visually echo the outside of a shipping container – and Alice Hamilton’s direction is steady and assured, but there simply is no getting past the blatant erasure of the female voice here. Bob Dylan once wrote, ‘You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows’; it’s clear that Eugene O’Hare’s Weatherman hasn’t got the faintest idea.