Review: The Life I Lead, Wyndham’s Theatre

While David Tomlinson is famous for starring in Disney films such as The Love Bug and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, he’s probably best-known for his portrayal of the bowler hat-wearing Mr Banks in Mary Poppins. But there’s a lot more to the actor than just the aptly-named banker, as one-man show The Life I Lead seeks to explore. Following a run at the Park Theatre and subsequent tour, the play transfers to the Wyndham’s Theatre for one week only, with comedian Miles Jupp donning the iconic bowler hat and (fake) moustache once again to bring to Tomlinson’s story to life.

Written by James Kettle, The Life I Lead (named after Mr Banks’ song in Mary Poppins) tells the story of David Tomlinson’s life and details his extraordinary highs and lows. Once described by Noël Coward as ‘looking like a very old baby’, Tomlinson began his career acting in amateur stage productions, before was a fighter pilot in World War II. After finally finding fame, Tomlinson retired in 1980 to spend time with his family, posing as his fictional American agent to avoid any offers of future work. He also encountered his fair share of personal tragedies with the death of his first wife, his son’s autism diagnosis, and a big family secret coming to light. Kettle’s skilfully crafted script is not simply a biographical play, though it is, of course educational. The Life I Lead is also an exploration of father and son relationships, what with Tomlinson’s difficult relationship with his father, Clarence Samuel Tomlinson (preferring to be addressed by his children by his initials instead of ‘daddy’), and his own, more loving relationships with his sons, notably his beloved third son, Willy.

Lee Newby’s magritte-inspired set design is one of the stars of the show, replicating Tomlinson’s drawing room, with a blue sky and clouds in the background, implying that he may be speaking from beyond the grave. Bowler hats are dotted around the stage, with a Mr Banks-shaped hole in the door, a constant reminder of one of his most iconic characters, a father himself.

James Kettle wrote the play especially for Miles Jupp (the pair have worked together, notably on Radio 4’s The News Quiz), and it’s easy to see why the instant Jupp walks out on stage looking a little out of place, not quite certain if he’s supposed to be there. The comedian has a lot in common with Tomlinson (in fact there’s a whole host of similarities between the pair listed in the programme) with his slightly awkward British demeanour, his charm and impeccable comic timing, and Jupp embodies Tomlinson impeccably, capturing his voice and movements perfectly. The instant he takes a seat in his drawing room and begins to speak, Jupp casts his spell over the audience and enchants as he draws them into a world of love, heartache and, of course, magical nannies. Jupp entertains as he speaks about Tomlinson’s eventful life – almost too eventful to believe – detailing CST’s obsession with Napoleon and finding the perfect cut of beef, and his friendship with Walt Disney with delightfully dry humour and wit, delivering some cracking one-liners throughout. Jupp also takes on other characters including CST, Disney and his American ‘agent’, who’s particularly entertaining to watch with his excessive lunging. But it’s not all humour, and Jupp also impresses with the range of emotion he brings to his performance. The heart-wrenching moments are the most impactful, genuinely shocking revelations eliciting gasps from the audience, but Kettle’s script and quick change of tone ensures that things don’t get too heavy, while portraying Tomlinson as a typical Englishman – keeping calm and carrying on.

With a running time of two hours (including an interval), The Life I Lead is a captivating, moving and fond look at a man who was a feature of many childhoods, who aspired to make his father proud and in turn his children proud of him. Cleverly crafted, The Life I Lead is a spoonful of sugary goodness – a magical production filled with warmth, emotion and delightful British humour.

The Life I Lead is playing at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 21st September.

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Photo credit: Piers Foley

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