Apollo Theatre, London – until 19 September 2015
A FATHER AND A SON, WHEN THE TIMES WERE A-CHANGING…
Old army jokes get readopted by every generation. I suspect that one of the most slyly placed laughs in this ultimately charming evening falls into that category. The Sergeant-Major thunders “Recruit Mortimer! I didn’t see you at camouflage practice!” “Thank you very much sir..”. Pause, a gale of mirth as the audience gets it. Nice.
But beyond such punchline moments, the play’s strength is elsewhere, born of personality, affection and an acknowledgement which gradually grows on you: of wider truths about parental love and the deep, alarming generational change (my own generation…) when a 20th century cut itself rudely adrift from postwar austerity.
A portentous reaction? Well, better that than the irritability which marked my first half-hour watching this two-hander: frankly repelled by the cocky self-absorbed delinquency of the younger protagonist and narrator. Jack Fox is Charlie Mortimer, plays alongside his real-life father, the veteran James Fox as Roger Mortimer – ex-Coldstream Guard, racing correspondent, wit, and longsuffering parent. He was nicknamed Lupin in honour of Pooter’s awful son in Diary of a Nobody. The real Charlie kept his father’s letters spanning thirty years: letters to Eton, to various hippyish foreign retreats, to his brief spell in army training and his sadder time in rehab after long abuse of alcohol and drugs. In middle age he published them as Dear Lupin; the late Roger’s voice entranced Radio 4 with its dry, caustic humour and fearless commentary on life with a heavy-drinking wife, neighbours and random racetrack encounters. Not to mention the glorious vituperations (many, I must say, about women: Yoko Ono described as being “as erotic as a sack of dead ferrets” ). The book took off, and now Michael Simkins deftly shapes it into this two-hander, directed by Philip Franks in a nice cluttered Adrian Linford set.
It adds a lot more narrative from Charlie about his own life, which is what caused my early irritability. Jack Fox is not yet charismatic enough on stage to create an emotional hinterland and sympathy: when his father calls him “an unrepentant spiv”, he is not far off, even when Lupin is still only bunking off from Eton and being rescued from expulsion by his friend’s godfather, Montgomery of Alamein. As he spirals into idle random jobs, boozing, overspending, showing-off and every kind of drug, sympathy drains away. But not from his father, whose exasperated love breathes in every line, offering advice on foreign visas and shady hats and French police, enclosing cheques and relating his own life – a hardworking one in contrast to Lupin’s – without complaint or comparison right through into his declining years. By which time Lupin has HIV and a damaged liver, and hardly notices his father’s growing weakness.
It’s a toughly unsympathetic role, and young Fox does his best. But the glory of the night is his father James: whether being Roger in mulberry cords and tweed jacket, or slipping deftly into character parts – headmaster, elderly tart, Montgomery, Jobcentre official, assorted army officers, a wide-boy dealer boss and, best of all, an utterly perfect Brian-Sewellesque fine art auctioneer. That keeps audience affection flowing; and when Lupin after the interval is getting his comeuppance and realizing what a mess he made of thirty years, the relationship becomes a touching tribute to the rock-solid and wise affection of a funny, perhaps sometimes lonely, maverick father for his classically ‘hopeless’ son.
So yes, it chokes you up in the end. In his last days Mortimer said he wanted no memorial service “just a quick fry-up”; and asked only for Lupin to remember some of his jokes. The play serves that cause magnificently; and by the end becomes a memorial any parent could be proud of.
Box Office: 0844 482 9671 http://www.nimaxtheatres.com
to 19 sept