Sir John Mortimer’s tour de force portrayal of his relationship with his father looks set to take the West End by storm. Mortimer's play, first shown in 1970 is autobiographical, showing both his early life and that of his relationship with his proud and often difficult father. The father is the very epicentre both of the family unit and of his son’s affections and Mortimer (the son) is seen struggling to succeed in the shadow of his father; a brilliant barrister with a cantankerous and cutting wit. As his aggressive courtroom persona and a passionate enthusiasm for Shakespeare and for the English garden become apparent, it is clear that Mortimer has cut and pasted from his father in finding his inspiration for Rumpole of the Bailey. It is perhaps interesting to note that Rumpole’s own relationship with his son is softer, loveable and more sentimental than the relationship between Mortimer and his father.
The point is made when his father loses his sight in an accident – he is up a ladder doing some gardening when he hits his head on a branch and is blinded. How terribly English. His father’s blindness is never mentioned by the family merely referenced when he demands that his son and wife “paint me the picture” of the world.
Derek Jacobi is masterful in his portrayal of the crotchety mischief making barrister cum father. Resolute to the end with his less than apologetic final goodbye: “I’m always angry when I’m dying”. Jacobi uses his full range to both bewitch and transfix the audience despite the less than loveable character he plays. He is ably supported by Dominic Rowan who plays, or almost underplays the desperate son seeking his father’s love, acceptance and recognition.
There are fine supporting performances from Joanna David as the almost over supportive wife and mother and from Natasha Little as the son’s wife who refuses to be either over-whelmed or intimidated by the father. It is Little's performance as Elizabeth which allows the audience to almost vent their angst at the father through her, for his comments, selfishness and complete ignorance of his son’s needs. As such her interaction allows the piece its sparkle and hold.
Thea Sharrock’s direction gives life and understanding to the play and allows the actors to both believe in and enjoy their performances. This play not only enriches the soul but reminds us that maybe our own family is normal after all.
A Voyage Round My Father is showing at the Donmar Warehouse 41 Earlham Street