Melissa Blease reviews The Life I Lead, starring Miles Jupp, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 31 August

You know Miles Jupp. Heck, we all know Miles Jupp: the multitasking, quick-witted actor, writer and comedian with a CV that goes on for miles and miles and miles. And we all think we know David Tomlinson, too: the ‘quintessential English gentleman’ actor, known for playing iconic roles in several vintage iconic films (Tom Jones; Three Men in a Boat; Bedknobs and Broomsticks), but probably best known for bringing Mr Banks – the emotionally distant, bowler-hatted banker with the stiff upper lip who allowed a certain supernatural nanny to reveal the tender soft centre beneath his starched, formal persona – in the Walt Disney’s classic 1964 film, Mary Poppins.

Put them together and what have you got? Jupp playing Tomlinson in James Kettles’ new biographical comedy in The Life I Lead, a one-man show specifically written for Jupp, visiting Bath as part of the Theatre Royal’s Summer Season directly prior to a limited run at Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End. 

Tomlinson’s life was punctuated with tragedy and emotional turbulence, compounded by a complex relationship with his father – a buttoned-up barrister who led a double life that inflicted incalculable emotional pain on his son’s existence. With a back story that could hardly be described as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, one wouldn’t expect a tour through Tomlinson’s life to result in the theatrical equivalent of a spoonful of sugar. But while there are indeed a couple of truly shocking revelations to be digested, we never once verge on misery memoir territory.

Jupp’s Tomlinson is an affable, jocular host and a fascinating raconteur who maintains a ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude typical of a man of his era, genially suffering more than his fair share of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune rather than taking arms against them. 

Designer Lee Newby’s set further bolsters Jupp/Tomlinson’s apparently almost other-worldly attitude to coping with adversity too, courtesy of a surreal interpretation of Tomlinson’s drawing room wrapped in a Magritte-style cloudscape and featuring the hollowed-out, familiar silhouette of Mr Banks in the freestanding doorframe. 

Against this chimerical backdrop, Tomlinson’s sharp, witty observations on being an actor, hanging out in LA with Walt Disney and enjoying Sunday roasts with Julie Andrews are delivered with the same lighthearted approach as poignant disclosures regarding his first wife’s tragic death and his third son’s autism diagnosis. But although Tomlinson/Jupp’s stiff upper lip never once trembles, at key moments the sound of a heart breaking beneath that impeccable suit is palpable.

“When I think of an Englishman I picture you,” Walt Disney told Tomlinson, on casting him in Mary Poppins; “awkward, uncomfortable, choked up and miserable but with a twinkle.” From this day forward, when I think of Mr Banks, I shall forever picture the real Tomlinson, so sensitively bought back to life by Jupp: amenable, demonstrative and benevolent, and utterly, totally charming.

Main image: Miles Jupp as David Tomlinson in The Life I Lead. Credit: Piers Foley