‘The Life I Lead’ review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
The Life I Lead, Miles Jupp
© Piers Foley

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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Comic Miles Jupp leads this very likeable drama about ‘Mary Poppins’ actor David Tomlinson

'The Life I Lead' is transferring to Wyndham's Theatre for a week from 16th September 2019. This review is from its premiere at Park Theatre. 

It’s almost a shock to learn in James Kettle’s ‘The Life I Lead’ that David Tomlinson’s moustache in ‘Mary Poppins’ was a fake. Along with the bowler hat and umbrella, it has indelibly linked the twentieth-century British actor of stage and screen with the fantasy Englishness of uptight father George Banks.

This solo show is well-timed to arrive after the sugar-high success of film sequel ‘Mary Poppins Returns’. It also demonstrates the same impulse as 2013 biopic ‘Saving Mr Banks’, about the magical nanny’s creator, PL Travers, to read the character of George Banks into the off-screen lives of those involved in the first film.

‘The Life I Lead’, though, is playful with this: Tomlinson (played by actor and comedian Miles Jupp) initially appears in his pyjamas, baffled, in front of a drawing-room door on which the iconic silhouette of Mr Banks has been carved. It’s never made clear whether he’s dreaming (or maybe even dying), but the door stays – a reminder of his defining role in the public imagination.

What follows is a dart around Tomlinson’s incident-packed life. It’s underpinned by a revelation about his overbearingly English father, known as ‘CST’, who starved him of affection both as a child and an adult. It covers his career as a WWII pilot, his early stage roles as an actor who wore hats excellently, his first wife’s suicide and his third son’s diagnosis of autism.

Fatherhood is a theme, with CST as a quasi-Mr Banks figure (without the redemptive kite-flying). But Kettle’s script takes a while to warm up. It’s too long, with some overly laboured fourth-wall-breaking chat at the start. The sheer amount of ups and downs in Tomlinson’s life exert their own pull, but the show hits its stride when the pithy anecdotes and dry one-liners start flowing.  

Kettle is also lead writer on Radio 4’s ‘News Quiz’, which Jupp hosts, so it’s not a surprise that play and performer go hand-in-glove. Jupp’s own brand of dry humour dovetails with a portrayal of Tomlinson that quite deliberately loops in and out of Banks territory. Even so, while Jupp is extremely funny at times, he also successfully lands the pathos when tragedy intrudes.

Generally, though, co-directors Didi Hopkins and Selina Cadell keep their staging of ‘The Life I Lead’ – set against a sky-blue backdrop – light. The cartoonish ode to Englishness sung by George Banks in ‘Mary Poppins’ (which gives this show its title) drifts in and out as a refrain. It all adds up to a show that peddles stereotypes even as it sends them up.

But ‘The Life I Lead’ does this with affection and charm. It gives us a likeable, funny Tomlinson in whose company it’s a pleasure to spend a couple of hours. You could call it a welcome spoonful of sugar right now.  

By: Tom Wicker

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