Can there be anything more rewarding … and terrifying for an actor than the one person play? Basically a much extended monologue it is a genre of performance which gives the actor no place to hide, the only interaction being directly with the audience. Charles Dickens (clearly a frustrated actor) gave dynamic reading tours in the nineteenth century which were to all intents and purposes solo plays in which he took on all the parts thrilling his audiences and reportedly bringing himself near to death so draining were his efforts. Both Patrick Stewart and Simon Callow have repeated this feat with their solo renditions of A Christmas Carol. More recently the exquisite vignettes of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads have entertained both on TV and the stage. Of course, on the down side, if the audience fails to be taken by a solo performance it must be excruciating agony on both sides. I wondered which way things would fall recently when I attended a solo play which on paper didn’t sound too promising only to be faced with a pleasant surprise. Here’s my review:
What a thoroughly delightful evening this turned out to be. I must admit that the thought of a one man performance about the life of reasonably well known film star David Tomlinson had not exactly set my pulse racing. How wrong I was! The Life I Lead at the Park Theatre turned out to be a completely engaging, at times affecting, well-written and superbly performed monologue which revealed more about this self-effacing personality than I could possibly have imagined.
David Tomlinson rose to fame playing upper class duffers and benevolent twits. His most well remembered role was as Mr Banks the rather stern but ultimately redeemed father figure in Disney’s Mary Poppins. As such he became the archetypal Edwardian parent for many generations (my own included) and it is this relationship between fathers and sons that playwright James Kettle cleverly makes the central theme. Tomlinson’s own relationship with his father was strained. Known not as daddy or even father to his son CTS, as the family styled him, was a grim forbidding man, slightly eccentric (his twin obsessions of Napoleon and the search for the perfect roast beef are hilariously conveyed) but with a hidden double life which produces a jaw dropping revelation in Act 2. Tomlinson went on to have four sons of his own; tragically one of these was diagnosed as severely autistic and sections of the play deal with the actor’s fight to have the condition recognised and his son treated. As if this wasn’t quite enough angst for anyone to bear, Tomlinson’s first marriage ended in murder and suicide, he was involved as a pilot in at least two potentially fatal air crashes and his brother was captured as a PoW in World War 2. At least this last incident ended happily.
Interwoven into all this tragedy, however, Kettle has provided some gloriously sunny moments when Tomlinson recalls the trajectory of his acting career. Noel Coward once observed of him, “He looks like a very old baby” and the actor was clearly surprised to find himself hobnobbing with the big names in Hollywood. And they didn’t come much bigger than Walt Disney who was, if you will, a father figure to a whole generation. The play describes how Disney and Tomlinson became firm friends – as well as Poppins Tomlinson went on to star in The Love Bug and Bedknobs and Broomsticks – and whose families shared good times around Disney’s California pool as well as revelatory confidences. When Tomlinson asked Disney why he hadn’t simply stuck to cartoons the latter twinklingly replied that actors were so much cheaper.
Tomlinson’s first and poorly paid stage job involved playing multiple characters in a busy street passing a window. This is superbly brought to life by Miles Jupp who gives us a multiple character gallery of his own. As well as playing Tomlinson, Jupp also portrays those who shared his life among others his second wife Audrey, CTS, a bogus theatrical agent, Walt Disney, a disapproving theatrical landlady, etc. Jupp is, after the eye-openers about Tomlinson, the evening’s second startling revelation. Known primarily as a stand-up comic and quiz panellist he is clearly also a superb actor blessed with exquisite timing, a wonderful physicality and an innate ability to get the audience on his side. He is equally good with the tragic, revelatory moments maintaining a stillness that leaves a profound mark on the audience – I clearly heard gasps of amazement when the bombshell about CTS was dropped. He even manages Mr Banks’s song from Mary Poppins (which gives the play its title) with aplomb. I do hope a director casts Jupp in some major Shakespeare role very soon.
The play is quite rightly simply staged and directed by Didi Hopkins and Selina Cadell. Quite why a one person play should require two directors I’m not sure but, that said, they do a fine job. Matthew Eagland’s lighting was well utilised to suggest the public life with full on glare to the more subtle private revelations – more muted tones and spotlighting. The set by Lee Newby I thought was heavenly – pun intended. Using pastel colours appropriately redolent of a Disney film with some (symbolic?) clouds in the background I was forcibly reminded of the paintings of surrealist Rene Magritte. This notion was supported by the number of bowler hats (another key Magritte trope) which were dotted around and a further recurrent image from Magritte’s work, that of a closed door broken by a cut out silhouette of Tomlinson/Jupp. All this demonstrated amply how a set designer can contribute a whole extra level of meaning to a performance – after all Tomlinson’s life was (to him at least) quite surreal.
Eschewing the current trend for intervaless plays the evening still clocks in at less than two hours during which there are moments of supreme hilarity and deeply moving revelation. If the premise behind this piece seems at first a little prosaic I suggest that, like Mr Banks in Tomlinson’s key film, you take the plunge and “Fly A Kite” – you won’t be disappointed!*
So not quite what I might have anticipated but none the worse for that. I haven’t tried this genre myself nor, I think, am I likely to. The nearest I have come is directing someone else in Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine, an interesting experience working out how to concentrate the audience’s attention on a lone figure. The biggest plus was that I could always count on 100% cast attendance at rehearsals.