A VOYAGE ROUND MY FATHER, by John Mortimer
Richard Eyre’s production of A Voyage Round My Father is currently showing at Richmond Theatre and feels like a bit of a love letter to his friend John Mortimer – they were clearly close because he did the eulogy at his funeral and so I wonder if this is why there was a significant softening of the character of his father, compared to the film version featuring Lawrence Olivier and Alan Bates as the young Mortimer.
Rupert Everett gives a splendid performance of his curmudgeonly old father Clifford and Jack Bardoe plays both the young boy as well as the adult son, John Mortimer himself with panache.
Bob Crowley’s set design offers us a wonderfully lit, spacious green garden in the opening scene, where we meet the main characters. The garden was clearly a much loved feature for the whole family (earwigs and all). Early on we witness the tragic accident that causes his father to lose his sight. Apparently, in real life he bumped his head getting into a taxi, but in the play he bumped it VERY LOUDLY and shockingly on the branch of a tree – the impact in the play suggesting his loss of sight was far more significant than the family ever made out – his disability wasn’t acknowledged openly by his family which must have been very difficult, given how needy and frustrated he subsequently became.
We follow his father’s trajectory as a divorce and probate barrister and his often cutting and witty takes on the trade, nobly supported by his endlessly caring wife (Eleanor David), who manages to stay calm despite having to boil a lot of eggs to get them to perfection. He was clearly a very intelligent, sharp raconteur who loved to tell a story, but we see him almost as a caricature who could be unbearably angry and dismissive – particularly cruel about the some of the divorce cases he covered; “like all cases of divorce, this one is concerned with sex” and he goes on to talk about the funny side of finding footprints on the dashboard of the car.
We also follow the journey of the young Mortimer through his time at boarding school and beyond. John marries a divorcee he met during his brief film career (not that his father approved) who brings kids to the marriage and they go on to have two of their own. The marriage is shown to be fractious as he moves up the ranks of the legal profession and it’s no surprise to me that they divorce in real life and he goes on to marry again and have two more daughters – Emily and Rosie Mortimer. This part doesn’t feature as they were born after their grandfather has died.
There was a lot of laughter from the audience throughout the autobiographical drama and it was an enjoyable watch, but I’m not sure the play has really stood the test of time, not much of it felt relevant to an audience today. It’s an outdated reminder of the legacy of loneliness that can be heaped upon boys being sent to boarding school and in particular on an only child who struggles to find his place in the world. Thankfully another era entirely, but perhaps a good reminder of how far we’ve come as a society in terms of supporting mental health, supporting women and supporting our boys. His overbearing father who clearly withheld his love and referred to him throughout as “The Boy,” also diverted him from being a writer to becoming a barrister and unintentionally left him with a great legacy because ultimately the law became his subject with his Rumpole of The Bailey character.
Julian Wadham is very funny as the Headmaster – especially during his “sex education” lesson whereby he tells the boys to sleep only on the right and that whilst “dreams” are acceptable, should they get any urges during the day to either have a cold bath or go for a run. The boys have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.
There was a lot of love portrayed between father and son towards the end of the play – a touching scene when the father was telling stories to all the grandchildren and they knew all the endings and the walks and talks before his father became infirm. Once his father died he admitted that he didn’t appreciate the freedom, or the end of dependence….he just felt lonely. A sad observation that no doubt a lot of us can relate to.