The Life I Lead review: Often charming look at the not-so-charmed life of David Tomlinson

For Walt Disney, who cast him as the workaholic Mr Banks in Mary Poppins, David Tomlinson was the epitome of a genteel Englishman.

But James Kettle’s play, written specifically to be performed by Miles Jupp, reveals that this much-loved character actor had an unexpectedly complicated personal life.

It’s a show bathed in nostalgia and whimsy. Yet it’s also astute about evasion and repression, and the most striking feature of this production by Didi Hopkins and Selina Cadell is Lee Newby’s design, which calls to mind René Magritte’s images of anonymous, elusive men in bowler hats. We’re encouraged to think of Tomlinson as someone stifled by a sense of decorum — and haunted by the spirit of his father, a respected and manipulative solicitor.

Noël Coward claimed that Tomlinson looked like a very old baby, and Jupp captures this quality — the bewilderment and exuberance, as well as the sad-eyed stoicism that Tomlinson thought made him resemble a spaniel. It’s a technically impressive and emotionally truthful performance, in which one-liners and pathos are delivered with equal aplomb.

But Kettle’s script takes a long time to focus on what turns out to be its main concern — the nature of father-son relationships.

Though it’s often charming, the persistent emphasis on gently amusing anecdotes means the more poignant elements of Tomlinson’s story don’t have quite enough room to breathe.

Until March 30 (020 7870 6876, parktheatre.co.uk)

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