James Kettle’s delighful character comedy The Life I Lead ran at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park in the spring of 2019, and now makes a quick stop in the West End following a short UK tour.

The character in question is that of David Tomlinson (1917-2000), a quintessentially English actor who was once described in a review as “looking like an old baby”, who mourns the disappearance of “the drawing room” and who, to generations of filmgoers, was Disney’s favourite father, Mr Banks in Mary Poppins.

In the personage of Miles Jupp – who catches every Tomlinson mannerism – he is polite, affable, and somewhat waspish other actors (“if you think all actors are attention seekers, you have had the misfortune to meet Alec Guinness”). He finds the word “lounge” disappointing, moustaches “caddish”, and Los Angeles “too bloody hot”.

At the start of the show, our hero steps into the room in which he will tell his story with an apologetic air, at first hiding at the side of the stage when a flourish of music begins with “what is it, and when does it start?”.

Soon, though, he’s settled enough to talk about his war service (in the air), his Napoleon-obsessed father CST (“which he preferred to the less formal ‘Daddy'”), his marriages – the tragedy of one, the satisfaction of the other, his children, his stage work, his films.

As we get to know the man behind Mr Banks, we get to know more about fathers and sons. CST has a family secret; the youngest Tomlinson boy is unreachable until diagnosis of autism in the 1950s.

The first act ends on a sombre note in wartime, but the second has two amusing set pieces with a fictional American agent declining plum jobs on his client’s behalf (“an advertisement for the Racing Post? How exciting!”) and CST’s attempt to get David of charges of reckless flying of a Tiger Moth.

There are nuggets galore of good humour in the piece, and a sense that Kettle has really dug deep to get under the skin of the man. Miles Jupp is consistently delightful, and the cheer of recognition when he dons the fake moustache to caper about singing the song that gives this show its name is lovely.

Selina Cadell and Didi Hopkins share direction duties, with Lee Newby’s set bringing to life the sense of an English country house, with honey still for tea. The show may be more suited to a smaller auditorium (I saw it from the grand circle) but it is a sweet show full to the brim with pathos and affection.

The Life I Lead closed at the Wyndham’s on 21 September 2019. On the final matinee at which I was present, Tomlinson’s wife Audrey was in attendance, and the applause for her surely proved our lifelong affection for Mr Banks and his interpreter.

Photo credits by Piers Foley.

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