Review: The Life I Lead (Park Theatre)

Miles Jupp stars as actor David Tomlinson in this one-man play by James Kettle

Miles Jupp in The Life I Lead
Miles Jupp in The Life I Lead
© Piers Foley

Described as looking "like a very old baby" by Noël Coward no less, character actor David Tomlinson made a lucrative career on stage and screen out of playing amiable upper class types. If you don't immediately know the name, you'll definitely recognise the face, from movies such as Bedknobs And Broomsticks, The Love Bug and, most famously, as curmudgeonly Mr Banks in the original Mary Poppins. It was while watching the latter that author James Kettle recognised the striking resemblance between Tomlinson and actor-comedian Miles Jupp, and started work on this charming solo play.

With his open-faced, slightly lived-in likability, masterful comic timing and air of partially concealed but omnipresent melancholy, Jupp is indeed utter perfection. In his hands, and abetted by a simple but beautifully judged staging by Didi Hopkins and Selina Cadell, Tomlinson emerges as a thoroughly lovely human being who faced life's challenges with a grace and fortitude that might seem alien in this day and age: his first wife took her own life in distressing circumstances, one of his beloved sons was severely autistic before that condition was fully understood, his ever distant father lived a double life…

These – and other more cheerful anecdotes – are delivered with an insouciant flair by Jupp that only occasionally rises to more dramatic territory. The overall effect is of being in the company of an exceptionally engaging, celestial after-dinner speaker (the ghostly sound effects and Lee Newby's attractive turquoise-and-white set suggests a pastel coloured hereafter as envisioned by one of Disney's most whimsical designers).

There is a touching moment near the end, where Mr Tomlinson the actor, Mr Banks the character and Mr Jupp the technician miraculously fuse and an elderly version of the actor describes the consideration with which he treats autograph hunters and well wishers, stressing the importance of honouring ordinary people's childhood memories. It's magical, genuinely affecting, and worth waiting for.

The lack of tension and general air of wistfulness will not appeal to everybody, and it's an undeniably slight, if intermittently very funny, evening in the theatre. Nobody is likely to go and see this without knowing who David Tomlinson was though, or expecting theatrical fireworks, and I suspect it will make its intended audience very happy indeed.