wed 28/02/2024

A Voyage Round My Father, Theatre Royal, Bath review - Rupert Everett excels in a play showing its age | reviews, news & interviews

A Voyage Round My Father, Theatre Royal, Bath review - Rupert Everett excels in a play showing its age

A Voyage Round My Father, Theatre Royal, Bath review - Rupert Everett excels in a play showing its age

John Mortimer creates a dazzling vehicle for a star, alongside one-dimensional supporting characters

Filial fun: Jack Bardoe and Rupert Everett in 'A Voyage Round My Father'Manual Harlan

Like theatre itself, the law finds its voice in stories, performance and spectacle. Any law student will, from that very first induction lecture, become suffused in a culture that is informed by and in turn informs theatre, some classes more like an evening at the Old Vic than an afternoon at the Old Bailey.

A Voyage Round My Father mines that lucrative seam of inspiration, John Mortimer (creator of Horace Rumpole, unforgettably given life on screen by Leo McKern) writing a kind of love letter to his blind barrister father. In its latest manifestation, this touring production casts Rupert Everett in the role played in the past by such Knights of the Realm as Laurence Olivier, Derek Jacobi and Alec Guinness – big shoes to fill.Everett is much the best thing about this take on the text, not exactly rescuing it (there's no failure in evidence), but providing a central focus that finds the complexity the play needs. He is effortlessly charismatic, one moment charming the birds from the trees (or, more prosaically, the earwigs from the dahlias), the next wallowing in self-pity, barking out imprecations, a martinet for whom the world must be constructed exactly to his requirements. Whether the performance overwhelms the part – another way of suggesting that we’re ushered towards liking this pompous but amusing man too much – will be in the eye of the beholder and embedded in our own family experiences, but the joy in the production rests with Everett.

Whether there’s enough elsewhere to get our teeth into in 2023 is open to question. Bob Crowley’s set is a pleasure to look upon, evoking the beloved garden where the father found solace in his dark world, and Richard Eyre’s direction keeps up the pace, the curtain called at an audience-friendly 130 minutes including the interval. Nevertheless, one cannot help but feel somewhat shortchanged.

Jack Bardoe (the thinly disguised author himself, named only as The Son) has a lot of fun as a prep school boy and then as a somewhat reluctant barrister who would rather be a playwright. Julian Wadham delivers a series of comic cameos with barely concealed delight, the best of which is the schoolmaster talking about sex in strained euphemisms to boys who wouldn’t understand even without the coy obfuscations. Eleanor David can do little with the understanding mother, always available to pour tea and wear a sympathetic smile when her husband winds up the anger.

Allegra Marland (pictured above) fares best as Elizabeth, the divorcee who catches the young man’s eye, marries him and then goes, if not quite toe-to-toe with his father, pricks his bubble of showy self-confidence. If it’s a little too convenient, her revealing of something beneath his carapace of self-invented wit and wisdom, offered, naturally, whether one wants it or not, it was very much needed, as the vulnerability of old age would soon render a once mighty presence much diminished.

The problem is less that the men and women who circle The Father are underwritten (though most are) and more to do with our over-familiarity with the public schoolboy coming of age, the assertive woman who doesn’t quite get what she wants but looks after herself, the meek woman servicing a brilliant man. Roll in a salt-of-the-earth working class driver and a couple of bohemian lesbians, and we’ve a hand of stock characters that remind us of the play’s age, now over 50 years on from its Greenwich Theatre premiere. 

Maybe that’s a fair price for the quid pro quo of dialogue that sparkles with wit, an evocation of an England not just fading in the rearview mirror but gone forever and a towering starring role to display Everett’s acting talents. I have no doubt that this combination of crowdpleasing elements will find its public and that they will be entertained, but, as I looked around the house, I could not see many in the stalls much younger than me. And I have a bus pass. 

Perhaps that doesn’t matter – but perhaps, on the day that news broke that the National Theatre Wales has lost its funding, it does.      

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