Touring – reviewed at Park Theatre, London
Actor David Tomlinson was an English gent, from his bowler hat to his (stick-on) moustache and cut glass accent, who is fondly remembered by millions for his roles in Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Brooksticks.
But behind the bonhomie and stiff upper lip his life swung from heartache and profound tragedy to immense joy and laughter. If it had been on screen or a stage play then most people wouldn’t have believed it.
Writer James Kettle unearthed his story, collaborating with comic and actor Miles Jupp to create a wonderful, very emotional and exceptionally funny, one-man show called The Life I Lead. The format is a little like those An Audience With.. shows, which used to be on TV, where a celebrity stands in front of an audience and talks about their lives.
Here Jupp’s Tomlinson wanders out onto the stage. Dressed in pyjamas and dressing gown he is startled to be confronted by a packed house. “Oh hello! It’s you!” he exclaims. “When you have spent your life in front of an audience you start seeing them everywhere. Are you here for me? – or an I here for you?” he enquires gracefully.
I don’t know how realistic Jupp’s depiction is of Tomlinson – he certainly looks nothing like him – but here the character actor is portrayed as a wonderful raconteur who makes an audience uncontrollably laugh while reducing them to gasps of astonishment and tears.
As a comic Jupp knows how to manipulate an audience so he seems right at home in The Life I Lead. There’s a lightness of touch, a genteel rendering of a man who was never a huge star and whose off-screen home life was unimaginably harsh.
Yet nothing seemed to diminish his enthusiasm or joie de vivre, which, when you hear what he endured, is quite extraordinary. As much as this is a tale about a minor actor’s success as a Disney favourite, it is also a quite harrowing and revelatory insight into the often difficult relationship between fathers and sons.
Tomlinson not only talks about his distant and uneasy time with his own father, the cold-hearted CST, but also his experience his own four sons, especially Willy who, it turned out, was one of the first children in the UK to be diagnosed with autism.
Jupp gives an endearing, heartfelt and understated performance as Tomlinson.
“You must not take me seriously!” he tells the chuckling audience as he throws in anecdotes about Julie Andrews, Walt Disney and Dick van Dyke and his near farcical courting of his second wife, Audrey.
But the shock disclosure about a sudden death takes the wind out of everyone’s sails.
I found The Life I Lead absolutely enthralling and I’m pretty sure that you will too.
The Life I Lead plays at the Park Theatre until March 30 before completing its national tour at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, running from April 2-3.
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