The Life I Lead, Park Theatre

Miles Jupp’s one-man show ‘The Life I Lead’ (essentially a biography of actor David Tomlinson, best known for his roles in Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks) opens this week at Park Theatre after a national tour.

Over the course of an hour and a half Jupp brings Tomlinson’s genial buffoonery and gentle good humour to life. After a slow start, the laughs start to come thick and fast as Tomlinson reflects on his experiences of working with Walt Disney (despite rather putting his foot in his mouth); nipping round the other end of Shaftesbury Avenue to try to further a romance conducted almost entirely during the intervals of their respective farces with the actress who would become his wife; and his first steps towards an acting career, in the days when his hat-acting (a hilarious physical comedy sequence) was much in demand, his speaking-acting substantially less so.

What at first seems like a light-weight but entertaining portrait of one of the now dying ranks of the ‘gentlemen actors’ (complete with musings on what it is to be English) takes a sudden lurch into a very dark place with a rather matter-of-fact recital of the murder-suicide of his wife and step-children only two months after their marriage. That such a horrendous tragedy is so briefly touched upon (and so swiftly moved on from) is at first shocking, but feels increasingly respectful towards a man whose fundamentally “glass half full” attitude saw him overcome great trauma and personal conflict to find lasting love, success and happiness. Underpinning Tomlinson’s one-liner-bestrewn chatter about children and holidays in the sun is a rather dark and complex examination of father-son relationships. Tomlinson reflects on his relationship with his own son, one of the first children in the UK to be diagnosed with autism, and gradually teases out the root of his own distant relationship with his forbidding father. Darkness and light, pain and humour. Was ever comedy not thus?

Jupp perfectly captures Tomlinson’s complexities and overall sweetness, combining physical comedy and vulnerability with an overall lightness of touch. The framing device doesn’t quite work and feels unnecessary, but James Kettle’s script is a thing of subtle joy. Audiences may know Tomlinson as Mr Banks, but his celebrity is not the focus of this play. Rather it’s simply a portrait of a man; a son and a father, who lived a life not of quiet desperation but of quiet hope despite despair

The Life I Lead was on at the Park Theatre until 30 March

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