THE LIFE I LEAD BY JAMES KETTLE STARRING MILES JUPP AS DAVID TOMLINSON AT THE ARTS THEATRE-
David Tomlinson is an actor so well known yet few can remember who exactly he is. For the record he starred in over thirty films in the post war era; his screen presence is super-familiar – tall spare with a stick-on moustache – with a face Noel Coward once described as ‘like an old baby’. Yet it takes some time to realize he is part of your youth and childhood – the reassuring archetypal Englishman, Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins anyone? Ah yes, it ‘s all creeping back to us, a genial gentle comical clot of a lovely chap in so many plays – he furnished a post-war reassurance that all was well - for children especially he became the Walt Disney design gentleman – ever ready to open a door for someone else, never to shock anyone with his own feelings, always quietly kind.
Miles Jupp does him wonderfully in this subtly written comic script by James Kettle. It is a made-in-heaven meeting of personalities. Miles was the mellow - but acerbic - master of comedy on Radio 4’s The News Quiz - his conventional well-enunciated actorly aperçus undercut by a chaotic irreverence. Now free to float in the world of theatre he stars at the National with Neil Morrisey and Robert Webb. He featured in TV’s ‘Rev’ with Tom Hollander and the elite comedy confraternity. His character Damien Trench from Radio 4”s In and out of the Kitchen is relentlessly funny and Miles’ new book Egg and Soldiers is Damien’s fictional childhood memoir.
In this slow burn of a play the character of David Tomlinson fits him like a glove. Apologetic from the start David/Miles makes a faux entrance through the dream-like disembodied front door to his drawing room – a set much like the interior of a Magritte painting. ‘So Sorry’ - he has another go. Then quizzes the audience on their knowledge of his many films. Disappointment flickers across his face - spoof titles of his 1930s repertoire create the humour. Miles Jupp is the master of the self put-down and his script is tailor-made for his style of suppressed humour. What follows is a performance of a lifetime as David Tomlinson comes to authentic life before our eyes.
But why? What intrigues Miles Jupp at the height of his powers to devote an entire script to him?
I think it’s because behind the modest mien, David Tomlinson was a true hero. Bumbling affably along with anecdotes about fellow actors and thoughts on the demise of the drawing room ‘What happened to them all? Now they’re all lounges.’
Yet it all conceals a life of patient suffering and constant kindness - and bravery. “You don’t have to have any talent at all to go to war, he remarks ‘just – courage’.
‘I enlisted as an airman’ he tells us ‘in 1941’ . A simple statement hides the nerve needed to join a high-risk RAF in the dark days of World War II. He trained in Canada, survived a crash ‘into the Saskatchewan snow’ without a mark on his plane – or him. The play hints at the heartbreak in store for Tomlinson. To recover from an appalling bereavement he was sent to train recruits to fly the gliders for the debacle that was the battle at Arnhem – ‘I knew most of them would die if not in the ‘coffin planes’ as they called them, then on the bayonets of the Germans – and so did they’.
David Tomlinson had an irascible father, a solicitor obsessed with the campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte. Like all the characters in this fascinating entertainment, Miles Jupp brings him to hilarious life. This flawed and faithless man had no time for sentiment. David longed for his approval all his life. Yet the play is an upbeat chronicle of a life so bravely lived you want to return to hear it again. David’s connection with children – and his friendship with Walt Disney, a difficult man, reminded me of Roahl Dahl also a wounded flyer with a flair for the imagination and inner life of children. He too found the best in Disney’s magical powers just as David Tomlinson did. ‘Mary Poppins’ - ‘Julie’ he describes as ‘an angel’ and there appears to be no irony there. Yet expect the unexpected here, packed with emotion and some shocking revelations.
The play is a microcosm of life for so many men in the twentieth century, men who went on to become our fathers and grandfathers and men who had seen so much, endured so stoically and kept their sense of understated humour in the face of unimaginable mental pain.
This very funny play is a testament to them.