The Life I Lead (Wyndhams)

The Life I Lead (Wyndhams, September 16th – 21st)


Walt Disney regarded him as the epitome of an English gentleman, telling him, “When I think of an Englishman I picture you.” For 40 years cinema audiences enjoyed the celebrated character actor in some 50 films, many coming to see him as a surrogate father after he played the archetypal Edwardian Mr Banks in Mary Poppins in 1964.

Not many will have realised the sadness behind the smiles in the life of David Tomlinson, nor appreciated the genuine warmth of an actor so often called upon to be aloof or to play the buffoon in what he once described himself as “dim-witted, upper-class twit performances.”

In the affectionate retrospective of his life and career, The Life I Lead, we are treated to a portrait of the actor and the man and surely come away feeling we know and admire him all the more.

The one-man show has rightly been greeted with considerable acclaim since it premiered in Exeter in February and after a national tour it has been given the chance to wow West End audiences with a week-long visit to Wyndham’s Theatre.

It succeeds on every conceivable level: from script, performance and direction to design and music and is – as Mary Poppins might have said herself – practically perfect in every way.

Actor, comedian and writer Miles Jupp totally inhabits the role of a self-effacing and mischievous Tomlinson, with striking vocal and physical similarities, conjuring up moments of humour and pathos effortlessly. It is a sunny and avuncular performance played out in the most delightful way, remembering wartime experience, memories of fellow actors (there’s some hilarious remarks about Peter Ustinov and generous recollections of Julie Andrews) and his working and social relationship with Disney. He also expresses a gregarious amiability in his response to fans and the general public – even to the greeting of one autograph-hunter, “I thought you’d died in 1975!”

Jupp faultlessly gives a masterclass in the genre of the one-person show, crafting delivery of every line, utilising silence, carefully selecting gestures, allowing Tomlinson the actor himself to be the raconteur. He makes it look easy, but of course the skill is presenting the subject of the evening in a completely believable way

It is the sort of well-judged solo performance of which Alec McCowen was the paradigm in the 1970s and 80s discovering the essence of an individual and helping the audience enjoy fresh insight into the heart of a man who many think they know well already thanks to a more public persona.

But James Kettle’s careful and delicate script also has its darker undercurrents, with its frank revelations about Tomlinson’s stern solicitor father (known as CST), his troubled first wife and his autistic son.  These are not presented as sensational exposés, rather as facets of a fascinating and well-adjusted character who in his own way carved his niche in the edifice of time.

The script suggests that Tomlinson would have enjoyed having a better relationship with his own father, who was so often critical of him, and felt the pain of the difficulties in building a rapport with his own son.

Didi Hopkins and Selina Cadell’s direction allows Jupp to make the most of building an intense connection to the audience, ensuring that the man who became an icon of so many childhoods never loses a very human touch. This is a real person, not just somebody whose story is being recounted as though a biography was simply being read out.

Lee Newby’s glorious sky blue and cloud white set, with a scattering of bowler hats and door featuring a carved out silhouette of Tomlinson, is suggestive of a heavenly waiting room, where a man can have his dreams (or perhaps fly a kite – up through the atmosphere) without censure. Matthew England’s subtle but important lighting skilfully captures the range of emotions described and portrayed. Eliza Thompson’s music is a joy, twinkling titbits of lighthearted joviality plus accompaniment to Jupp’s performance of the title song, woven so nimbly into the narrative throughout.

It is rare to find an exceptional piece of theatre so impressive, absorbing, illuminating, enriching and entertaining as The Life I Lead and it is, without a shadow of doubt, unmissable. Jupp has already received award nominations for the off-West End and regional tour performances and it would be criminal were he not to garner more than appreciative applause for such a matchless, impeccable performance.

David Guest

Image: Piers Foley

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub