The Life I Lead, Park Theatre, review: an affectionate and moving resumé of the life of Mary Poppins star David Tomlinson

Miles Jupp as David Tomlinson in The Life I Lead - amx
Miles Jupp as David Tomlinson in The Life I Lead - amx

What was David Tomlinson’s reaction on seeing the first cut of Mary Poppins, in which he starred as bowler-hatted banker George Banks? Although generations have loved that quintessence of the Edwardian gent busted out of his starchy shell by the fantastical antics of the world’s most famous nanny, Tomlinson’s verdict (subsequently revised) was that it was “appallingly sentimental”. 

For a while, I worried that a similar response was merited by this solo tribute – written by James Kettle, performed by the comedian and Radio 4 News Quiz host Miles Jupp and initially dripping with a cloying sweetness. First seen passing through a door – hollowed out with a silhouette of the character – against a cloudscape possessing loud hints of the celestial, Jupps’s reincarnation sports a smart dressing-grown and slippers. We’re apparently in for a round of cosy reminiscence, with the odd gust of poignancy. 

For all our prior affection, after the laborious establishing of posthumous rapport (“I’m sorry I wasn’t expecting to see you here… if indeed you are here”), delivered with clipped bonhomie, you want to click your fingers in a Poppinsy fashion and cut to the meat of the matter, if there is any. But indeed there is. And while we never stray from the civilised realm of inoffensive raconteuring, the gossipy fascination of the anecdotes, the generous dash of jokes, the persuasive nature of Jupps’s performance and the page-turning aspect of the biographical revelations keep us, unwanted interval aside, completely gripped.

The title – The Life I Lead – derives from the Sherman Brothers’ song in the film and has acquired rich layers of irony by the time a now-besuited Jupp warbles a reprise of it. The regimented timetable detailed with paternalistic pride in the lyrics (“It’s 6:03 and the heirs to my dominion are scrubbed and tubbed and adequately fed”) had its darker real-life parallel in the fastidious routines of Tomlinson’s aloof solicitor pater, “CST”.

The latter – obsessed with Napoleon and sinking his teeth into a perfect round of beef – is evoked with relishable eccentricity. Yet – due to the double-life he led, with one family in Folkestone, another in London – he caused untold hurt. Tomlinson thus becomes a complex (even a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious) emblem of the stiff-upper-lip tendency – reprising old-fashioned reticence on-screen, soldiering on through private sadnesses (including the suicide of his first wife) and yet striving – particularly in the case of his youngest son, gradually diagnosed with autism – to be the approachable father-figure he never had.

“When I think of an Englishman I picture you,” Walt Disney once genially told him, “awkward, uncomfortable, choked up and miserable but with a twinkle.” That twinkle is here – intact – and in its understated way, it dazzles. 

Until Mar 30. Tickets: 020 7870 6876;; then tours