Anyone under the age of 40 will probably have no idea who David Tomlinson is; the over 50s would recognise him as Mr Banks from the legendary Mary Poppins film. I fall into the latter group but could only add Bedknobs and Broomsticks to his list of accomplishments. This makes The Life I Lead a complete revelation, packed with terrific detail of a fascinating man. Tomlinson had a 40-year career on film and TV; but chose to retire at the relatively young age of 63; I started saying no before the phone stopped ringing is a sharp reminder of a brutal profession.
Wyndham’s Theatre in Charing Cross Road feels the perfect setting for James Kettle’s play, written with Miles Jupp in mind. Jupp is absolutely brilliant reciting a two-act monologue stretching over two hours. His performance is nothing short of remarkable; a masterclass in monologue performance. Every line, gesture and mannerism is perfectly timed. Never rushed or afraid of silence, he allows the audience to find the punchline which is never contrived. Jupp adds value with an uncanny resemblance to Tomlinson, particularly when he dons the trademark bowler hat and moustache.
The play is incredibly revealing and exposes how little I knew about Tomlinson. A colourful private life, including two marriages and a dark family secret, are just a taster of the surprises that make the audience audibly gasp. His early career in rep and wartime service is covered in detail. His touching relationship with Walt Disney also shows how Tomlinson naturally endeared himself to others. Lacking the matinee idol looks of his contemporaries (say Stewart Grainger) he was always destined for a career as a character actor; but he never appeared remotely concerned by that fact. He basically played himself and we saw the quality of the man and actor in equal measure.
David Tomlinson captured the very finest qualities that make us proud to be British; tolerant and well-mannered with an unshakable core of decency; perhaps more importantly, a sense of humour that quenches the spirit when all seems lost. But he should also be remembered as a great actor who was always content to support rather than lead. I think he might have been the star all the way along; he was just too polite to mention it?
Written by: James Kettle
Directed by: Selina Cadell
Produced by: Jonathan Church Productions and Exeter Northcott Theatre
Box Office: 0844 482 5120
Booking Link: https://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk/tickets/the-life-i-lead/
Booking Until: 21 September 2019