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A Voyage Round My Father

Generations of boys will learn not to eat peas with their knives . . . or clean their nails with bus tickets.
---- Headmaster
A Voyage Round My Father
Derek Jacobi as the Father
(Photo: Hugo Glendinning)
John Mortimer's autobiographical play about his blind barrister father which was first given a theatrical staging in 1970 at Greenwich is revived at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Thea Sharrock. Mortimer is best known as the writer who brought us the incomparable television character Rumpole of the Bailey - a more affable version of the Father in this play. Now in his eighties, John Mortimer is also the author of several other plays, novels and film scripts.

A Voyage Round My Father describes Mortimer's own childhood and young adult life. He grew up with his blind divorce barrister father and mother in the Chilterns within commuting distance of London. Continuing to work after he was struck with blindness, Mortimer Pere was accompanied on his trips to London by his wife who would read aloud to him the juiciest details of the divorces cases he was working on. You can imagine the complete silence of the other passengers in the train carriage as they strained to hear the salacious descriptions while pretending to read their newspaper; evidence of adultery like the upside down footprints on the dashboard of a car. Both Alec Guinness and Laurence Olivier have played the Father, Guinness in the 1971 play and Olivier in a 1982 film with Alan Bates as the Son.

This bittersweet description of the relationship between parent and child, told completely from the son's point of view. Dominic Rowan as the Son plays Mortimer as an adult and narrates much of the play with a young boy playing his younger self. While this is a comedy because the central character, the old man (Derek Jacobi) is so eccentric, the audience can also sense the son's underlying search for acceptance and love but it remains that, a search. There is a picture of rural England between the wars with the Father's interest in his dahlias reflected in Robert Jones wistful set with flowers growing behind long grass. The scenes set in Mortimer's boarding school with gowned and mortar boarded staff reflect English education at its most bizarre. As male teacher and male pupil dance together, the teacher says, "How do you expect to get through life if you can't do the Foxtrot?"

Dominic Rowan appears very much the bystander in Mortimer's autobiography because this play is really about his father. We sense the distance the father puts between himself and his son, and the essential character of the father eludes us as it did his son.

Rowan's expression conveys the frustration with his father very well and his performance is well judged. Derek Jacobi as the father is probably not as unpleasant as the irascible old barrister undoubtedly was but he is delightfully quirky. I really enjoyed the Remembrance Day service in church where the old mischief maker sings the irreverent "Pretty Polly Perkins of Paddington Green" while everyone else is hymn singing. Joanna David plays the longsuffering wife but Natasha Little as Mortimer's wife Elizabeth stands up to the Father and he enjoys her banter. Christopher Benjamin excels as the idiosyncratic, bombastic Headmaster.

Thea Sharrock's production in the tiny Donmar space is a delightful and gently witty piece. Its depth lies in the way it makes us think about the love-hate of the child-parent relationship, here expressed with the great English art of understatement. The playwright's humour is often used to mask a more uncomfortable truth. When the Mother meets the charming Elizabeth, she says, "She has nice eyes for a divorced person."" The audience laughs at this but underneath that remark lies a world of prejudice and fixed thinking.

Written by John Mortimer
Directed by Thea Sharrock

Starring: Derek Jacobi, Dominic Rowan, Joanna David, Natasha Little
With: Christopher Benjamin, Jaimie de Courcey, Katie Warren, Lewis Aaltonen, Charlie Bollands, Edward Jackson Keen, Neil Boorman, Lily Bevan, Osmund Bullock, Sadie Shimmin, Sonny Muharrem, Jolyon Price, Piers Stubbs
Design: Robert Jones
Lighting: Peter Mumford
Sound: Gregory Clarke
Running time: Two hours fifteen minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6624
Booking at the Donmar Warehouse to 5th August 2006
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 15th June performance at the Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London WC2 (Tube: Covent Garden)
Transferring to West End, Wyndham's Theatre 9/14/06
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©Copyright 2006, Elyse Sommer.
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