For millions of people across the world David Tomlinson will be better known as the patriarch Mr Banks in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins. For millions more, including me, he is best known as Professor Emelius Browne in another Disney classic, Bedknobs and Broomsticks. While these characters are engrained on our hearts from childhood, what about the man behind the stick-on moustache? James Kettle’s The Life I Lead provides a retrospective of the man who became famous playing “professional idiots.”
The Life I Lead has already enjoyed a successful run at The Park Theatre, and a tour, before finally transferring to The Wyndhams Theatre, sadly for just a week. Kettle wrote the play specifically for leading man Miles Jupp, the pair have worked together extensively so it makes sense that Kettle saw in Jupp something that was quintessentially English, and more importantly, typically Tomlinson.
Miles Jupp stumbles on to the stage, not quite sure whether or not he should be there, and after some back and forth with the audience takes a seat in the drawing room which looks remarkably like his own. The door has the silhouette of Mr Banks cut out of it, and behind is blue sky and clouds, suggesting we may be hearing this story from the other side.
It is a remarkable story; the focus is undeniably paternal with much of the narrative focussing around Tomlinson’s own father, Clarence Samuel Tomlinson, always referred to by just his initials. A man that showed more interest in Napoleon than his sons, and who harboured another secret family in London. There are glimpses of Tomlinson’s own sons, and in particular the youngest, Willie, who was Autistic before anyone knew what the word meant, and of course the fatherly figure who found redemption, Mr Banks is never far from the conversation.
These father-son moments are spread out across the two-hour running time, but are interspersed with the most wonderful anecdotes. Kettle’s version of Tomlinson takes no prisoners, with swipes at everyone from Peter Ustinov to Alec Guinness. It is surprisingly funny and filled with the kind of dry wit that always seems to be associated with the upper classes, and delivered with impeccable timing by Jupp.
These hilarious tales, which often go behind the scenes of Mary Poppins or a series of ridiculous sounding plays, make the more tragic moments of Tomlinson’s own life all the more devastating. The death of his first wife and step children is particularly traumatic, as is the realisation that his own mother had always known more than she let on.
Director, Selina Cadell has ensured that even in this bigger venue, the audience feel invested in the story, it’s more like you’ve invited David Tomlinson to a dinner party, and are enjoying these fantastic tales with a few other select guests, rather than an auditorium full of laughing, and often gasping, theatre goers.
Miles Jupp is undoubtedly the right person to portray Tomlinson, he has captured the mannerisms and style of speech perfectly, helping to create an illusion that Walt Disney would be proud of, but he also portrays CST, a fictional agent and a host of other characters with full blown gusto, it’s a tour-de-force performance to be marvelled at.
While the themes of parenthood drift in and out, often usurped by the funnier moments, it is this mix of light and shade that makes The Life I Lead a superbly captivating piece of theatre. It peels back the layers of a reluctant Hollywood star and lays his life out for all to see, and what a life it was, lets hope this isn’t the last chance we have of hearing James Kettle and Miles Jupp’s version of it.