I must admit I knew not much about David Tomlinson (1917-2000) before seeing The Life I Lead, itself something I only saw as it happened to be in Chichester in the same week that I went down to West Sussex to catch a touring production of the Tom Stoppard play Rough Crossing. As Tomlinson (Miles Jupp) observes, “It’s Mr Banks that people want”, as though he were forced to slip back into that character in the 1964 motion picture Mary Poppins to appease the public. One need not, I was delighted to discover, know anything more about Tomlinson to follow what goes on.
His relationship, if it could be called that, with his father was the one took up more time than any other single issue. An aloof figure, even by the standards of the day, it turns out he was quite literally living a double life. There was an entire second family, though the Tomlinsons soldiered on as though nothing had happened. Miles Jupp brilliantly plays the English gent, bursting into song and telling various anecdotes, and treating his own children with far more compassion than what he remembers from his own childhood. Just as well: one of them, Willie, was eventually diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum, at a time when just a few years before, that child would have been taken from his parents and unceremoniously bunged in bedlam. Instead there was compassion, and the work of an extraordinarily patient woman who had devoted her life to helping people like Willie.
Tomlinson’s father was promptly widowed when his first wife was taken by her own hand; his second marriage, to Audrey, lasted until his own death as the result of a sudden stroke from which he never recovered. As tends to be the case with single-performer productions, Jupp voices various people, including the likes of Walt Disney and members of his family. For those who recall Tomlinson in the various films he was in, he was one of those character actors that portrayed more or less the same sort of person over and over again – posh, a tad ridiculous but somewhat modest and unfailingly polite. So was the Tomlinson portrayed here, but there was so much more to him than a man who has been in a lot of films.
A spellbinding performance from Jupp, who is perfectly cast for a show of this nature, full of personal reflections and a narrative full of details about both the personal and professional aspects of a remarkable man.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.