Saturday, 21 September 2019

REVIEW: The Life I Lead at Wyndham’s Theatre

Mary Poppins was the first cinema film I ever saw. I realise now what a high bar this set for everything else that followed! And although Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke are known for so much else besides and as stars in their own right, David Tomlinson basically isMr Banks. So finding out something of the man behind that character was at least part of the attraction of The Life I Lead.

And what an extraordinary life. A pilot who survived two plane crashes, who had a tragic first marriage, whose own father lead a double life - and much more. Any one of these major features would be enough to give any of us pause to reflect if not to shut ourselves away from life. But Tomlinson hung on to the good things in his life and nurtured their memory so they in turn nurtured him. 

The play is centred on two significant relationships. Tomlinson’s with his remote and aloof father and Tomlinson’s with his son – also distant and uncommunicative but for entirely different reasons. Along the way we get some wonderful insights into the making of Mary Poppins and the genius and passion Walt Disney brought to it. We also get many, many laughs from some brilliantly delivered lines (such as: “The 1950s were like one of Peter Ustinov’s anecdotes. They started well but seemed to go on forever.”). 

We are also brought up short by some tragic and shocking moments in Tomlinson’s past. The balance between this light and shade is carefully managed in James Kettle’s script, which dots around in terms of chronology but weaves a careful path that brings us to a point where we feel as comfortable in Tomlinson’s company as we always have in Banks’s.

The programme notes tell us the play was written for Miles Jupp and his oh-so
English persona makes him a natural in the part. He handles the timing and delivery of the comic moments expertly, as we would expect. But the serious and challenging content is equally well served. As the evening progresses he truly becomes Tomlinson for us. And it turns out that getting to know the man behind a character you know from childhood is a thoroughly joyous and life affirming experience. It’s a strange mix of jaw dropping revelations about Tomlinson’s family life and warm nostalgia that takes you back to that first experience of seeing Mary Poppins. 

All in all it’s a quite remarkable experience which makes a real person out of someone who has until now only been a character in a film. And in doing so it enhances both one’s memory of the film and one’s appreciation of the man.

Review by John Charles

Rating: ★★★★★

Seat: B26 | Price of ticket: £54
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