You can hardly move for people writing memoirs about their fathers these days, but one of the first, and one of the best, was John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father, affectionately revived by Thea Sharrock at the Donmar Warehouse.
Mortimer’s account of his growing up literally in the shadow of his blind barrister father and his garden trees has been a constant cottage industry for the author. It was a radio play as early as 1963, then a television play, and a stage play at Greenwich in 1970 with Mark Dignam, a much underrated actor, memorably magniloquent and irascible in the main role.
Alec Guinness made the part his own in the West End in 1971, silkily self-contained and poetic, and in 1982 Laurence Olivier thundered opposite Alan Bates as the filial narrator in a second television version, playing one of the two deathbed scenes Mortimer wrote for him (the other was in his adaptation of Brideshead Revisited) and delivering the line “I’m always angry when I’m dying” as if it was a regretful complaint.
At the Donmar, Derek Jacobi gives a captivating, unsentimental performance as the old boy, straight as a ramrod, mixing his cross-examination in the divorce court with a piquant evocation of his own performance as Richard II. Shakespeare quotation was a second tongue in the Mortimer household and Jacobi makes the transitions seamless.
The play is an accumulation of scenes rather than a dramatic evolution, and Sharrock’s production – simply designed by Robert Jones, with a sunlit border of flowery luxuriance - gives each episode its full weight and flavour without apology for theatrical bittiness. Thus Christopher Benjamin’s bellowing headmaster, who sees depravity in a slice of cake, seems to create a wealth of schooldays in a single speech, and Katie Warren and Sadie Shimmin as two Sapphic bookshop keepers are vividly realised visions of a world elsewhere.
All the memories are conjured by the active imagination of Dominic Rowan’s quietly astonished young Mortimer, listed only as “Son,” with Joanna David as the forbearing “Mother” and Edward Jackson Keen (one of three boy actors) as the “Son(Child).”
Scenes of domesticity, employment in the film studios during the war, and the balancing act of complementary careers at the bar and in the study all conspire to give a picture of quintessential Englishness that must now strike an audience as one of untroubled privilege.
Mortimer even relates the detail of his own first marriage to the novelist Penelope Mortimer, who joined him in full flow at the typewriter with a readymade family of four children. This character, Elizabeth, is played with beautiful poise and precision by Natasha Little in a series of stunning silk frocks.
Finally, though, the play belongs to “Father” and the sight (and sound) of Jacobi belting out his own cantankerous version of “Pretty Polly Perkins of Paddington Green” as a defiant counterpoint to the school hymn will be an abiding memory of an innocent, enjoyably nostalgic evening.
- Michael Coveney