Following a run at the Park Theatre and a nationwide tour, The Life I Lead, a one-man biopic show about beloved British actor David Tomlinson, comes for a flying visit to Wyndham’s Theatre. Despite being a prolific film and stage actor appearing in over 50 films, he indisputably achieved his immortality with his role as Mr Banks in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins, a father figure considered starchy even by Edwardian standards.
In the role of Tomlinson is comedian and actor Miles Jupp, with former News Quiz head writer James Kettle on script duty. The combination of writer and star bears great fruit here, as the show goes for the crowd-pleasing route of being peppered with gags and bon mots. It’s like an extremely genteel stand-up set, and Jupp delivers it admirably. The jokes dry up at times in order to introduce moments of pathos, and Jupp sticks the landing here as well. Tomlinson had a life marked by tragedy but seemingly overcame it to become a first-rate comedic performer, a “professional idiot,” as put by a review quoted in the show. With the turns of Tomlinson’s life charted in a non-linear, conversational style, Kettle saves the coup de grace for the second act, with a revelation about Tomlinson’s austere father that’s teased throughout the show.
Performed on a set (Lee Newby) with a blue clouded sky and littered with bowler hats, the set evokes a Magritte painting, a non-earthly space for the conversation to play out. Director Selina Caldwell manoeuvres the action from pathos to cheeriness with abrupt lighting changes, a tactic that works but begins to strain as the second hour of the show unfolds.
It’s by no means perfect – there’s an unnecessary interval, it could have done with a slight trim, and there’s a sense throughout that it’s making no effort to reinvent the wheel. But nor should it have to. Gentle yet illuminating, the show shines a light one of cinema’s great straight men, with a great central performance. I was initially skeptical of the casting of Jupp as Tomlinson, thinking they were too physically different. But it’s to his credit that, while singing the title song, you might think for a moment that it was the man himself. How pleasant is The Life I Lead.