The Life I Lead at the Park Theatre: A Charming Account of Inconsistency
Anthony Walker-Cook reviews The Life I Lead, which depicts the life and career of David Tomlinson.
‘Consistent is the life I lead’. So sings George Banks in the 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins. He is, by all accounts, the caricature of an English gentleman: the self-professed ‘lord of my dominion’, he returns home to a sherry and pipe and his slippers ready on the side. Yet behind this character was the actor David Tomlinson, whose life James Kettle has turned into a convivial show, The Life I Lead. Comedian and actors Miles Jupp has been tasked with bringing the ‘caperings of a professional idiot’ through the character of Tomlinson to the stage, and I must say he is rather spiffing at doing so.
Lee Newby’s design is simple but highly effective. A door with a Tomlinson-shaped hole stands in the middle of the stage, casting Tomlinson shadows on the back walls that depict a blue sky with white clouds. Can anyone listen to ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’ without singing along? I doubt it, and the evocations of Tomlinson across the stage amidst soft lighting are reminiscent of the lighter mood of the Disney classic the song belongs to.
It would be a shame, however, to remember Tomlinson just for his role in Mary Poppins, even if the show relies on the iconography of the role: bowler hats are strewn around the set, an acceptance of the actor’s ‘gift for hat wearing’. What soon emerges as the evening progresses, however, are the various challenges faced by Tomlinson both throughout his career and in his personal life. It is coyly observed that ‘One can’t play Hamlet every night’ as an admonishment for performing a minor and bizarre role in a play, whilst famous actors of the period are referenced and poked fun at throughout.
More difficult are the stories about Tomlinson’s autistic son, William (one of the first children to be formally diagnosed with the condition), or those about his first wife, Mary. Jupp admirably changes voices throughout, shifting often between American and English quickly. That said, whilst Jupp does a splendid job of capturing Tomlinson’s Englishness, the moments of transition from these darker scenes (often accompanied by a dip in the lighting) into the next section of the piece are rather abrupt and clunky. I guess the British really can’t handle emotion well.
How then are to feel about this figure remembered by so many as a man first broken by his job but then redeemed as a doting father? The Life I Lead places a strong focus on the paternal bond, with comments on David about his father and his son, with Walt Disney also referenced throughout as a kind and supportive male friend. Jupp’s performance is commendable and Kettle’s writing is neat, if the piece is slow to begin.
The reminiscing tone of The Life I Lead is at one point poetically described as ‘shaking hands with a childhood memory’, and Kettle’s writing when combined with the design really captures this joyous naivete that can come with searching down memory lane, even if it can reveal some darker detours. Consistency may have characterised Mr Banks’ life, but the same cannot be said for David Tomlinson. The Life I Lead instead suggests a man much more willing to fly and kite and see where the wind took him.
The Life I Lead is at the Park Theatre until the 30thMarch, 2019, before continuing on its UK tour.
Photograph credit: Piers Foley.