According to British author and barrister John Mortimer’s autobiographical 1971 stage play A Voyage Round My Father, his dad was a charismatic, egotistical, mischievous, archly irascible, borderline pompous maverick. He maintained a nightly ritual of drowning the earwigs that plagued his garden. He was very particular about the consistency of his boiled eggs. And, for at least half of his life, he was blind – but, as we’re immersing ourselves in idiosyncratic English upper-middle-class family life here, nobody ever mentions that.
Mortimer’s complex relationship with his complex father was always going to be either a curse or a blessing… and he turned it into a gift to theatre.
Former National Theatre Artistic Director Richard Eyre has suffused this latest revival of Mortimer’s original stage play with all the compassion, frustration, grace, reverence, humour and love that one would imagine the writer himself intended the story of his personal voyage to encapsulate. And if anybody should know what Mortimer Jr intended, it would be Eyre: he gave the eulogy at the funeral of the playwright, who was his long-standing friend, in 2009, at the request of the family. Today, in a very different way, at a very different time, the Mortimers are once again in Eyre’s spotlight.
Our voyage begins in the 1920s, when Father goes blind after an accident in his garden. Against Bob Crowley’s beautifully lit set evoking that garden, we embark on a tour of Son’s coming of age, from boarding school to a career in law and married life via a brief stint working in a film studio. His ambition to become a writer thrums away constantly in the background of all proceedings, while his loyal, patient mother dedicates her life to serving Father. The duo are referred to only as Father and Son throughout the play; surely a dramatic device on Mortimer’s part to distill the essence of the relationship between the two.
Jack Bardoe is flawless as the quietly observant, affectionately empathetic Son – a key character whose main role in the drama is bystander/narrator. Permanently in his father’s shadow, rarely out of his father’s gaze, his own self-belief slowly but surely develops as his father’s power over him diminishes and we watch Son mature from subservient schoolboy to a man in his own right.
Julian Wadham brings charming flourishes of wit, wisdom and coincidental humour to his role as the well-meaning headmaster of Son’s school, working in almost double-act tandem with shell-shocked master Ham (Richard Hodder). Meanwhile, Eleanor David as Son’s mother soothes, smooths and moderates her husband’s demands in almost every scene, patiently catering to his every whimsical whim as his imperious influence on the family gradually starts to diminish and the frailty of old age takes its toll. As for Father himself…
Stubborn but vulnerable, engaging and intimidating, Rupert Everett commands both sympathy and antipathy in equal measure, in a masterful, captivating performance. He’s a man clinging to the edge of a rapidly changing world, resolutely in denial of his limitations, sightlessly watching his son growing up and away from him, and raging against the allegorical dying of the night that Dylan Thomas so eloquently described in his poetic tribute to his own father (Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, 1951). And there’s poetry in motion in Mortimer’s memoir, too.
Jocularity, absurdity, eccentricity and memorable moments that inspire flabbergasted shock and awe when Father, yet again, behaves deliciously inappropriately. A hint of Brideshead Revisited, a waft of Downton Abbey and, at times, a sniff of The Remains of the Day within the evocative sense of nostalgia for a long-lost time, place and social climate. Ambition is permanently questioned, morals are occasionally questionable, angst and frustration are smothered by platitudes and convention.
But throughout a play that could be largely described as the story of one son’s ongoing emotional battle with a formidable, inherently powerful patriarch, one over arching theme remains constant: how much do we allow our parents to shape who we are – and, who are we without them?
“You think of how people tell you it’s meant to feel: sudden freedom, the end of dependance. You walk into the sun and no-one is taller than you, and you are in no-one else’s shadow. But I know how I felt: lonely.”