Oscar Wilde wrote that every woman’s tragedy is that she becomes like her mother, whereas each man’s is that he does not. John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father deals with the extent to which we try at once both to accept and to transcend a parent’s shaping power, and to reach a settlement with them both as influence and individual. Although the central characters are named simply “Father” and “Son”, the author is clear both in all his comments and in the detail of the play itself that it is entirely autobiographical. In his programme notes for this revival, Mortimer says simply of his father that “he taught me everything.” In this case, “everything” runs from a gamesome predilection for appearing as a barrister in divorce cases to a passion for Shakespeare (although Mortimer senior never approved of his son’s efforts as a writer), through to a strange mixture of obligingness and stubbornness in denial: the Mortimer family never spoke of Father’s blindness, and he would tour the family’s garden commenting upon its foison, cued by the smells of flowers and discreet verbal nudges from wife or son.
Derek Jacobi is on playful form as Father. However, “playful” means that amid the Jacobi brilliance we almost take for granted there is also a shade too much readiness to employ some of his favourite devices: the mute look with part-lolling tongue to indicate deceptively trenchant thought, for instance, or in particular the semblance of beginning a sentence before interrupting it with a laugh, bellow or other irruption, as in “Y— new neighbours?!” or “W— hee, hee, hee!” Like so many actors’ personal chops, these are never annoying until you notice them, and then you can spot little else. In contrast, Dominic Rowan’s speciality, evidenced once again as Son, is a kind of self-effacement. He excels at a particularly English flavour of barely-wry understatement, which pitches a number of Mortimer’s choice phrases perfectly but to my surprise conceals as many more: morsels such as his half-apologetic legal remark “I have a talent for divorcing people” passed almost entirely unnoticed by the press-night audience. Thea Sharrock’s production is considered and enjoyable, but as a piece of programming this is rather more relaxed fare than we have come to expect of the Donmar.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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