A Voyage Round My Father
New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme
Sir John Mortimer's autobiographical recollections of life with his eccentrically difficult father is probably one of his most endearing works in a catalogue of books, plays and scripts. Yet A Voyage Round My Father is rarely performed, presumably because of its epic scale.
However, that's never been a reason for the New Vic not to do a production; previous offerings such as Charles Dickens' Great Expectations and last year's seasonal offering The Wizard of Oz proved that the New Vic can be adventurous and spectacularly successful too.
A Voyage Round My Father took on added significance with the death of the 85-year-old author as the actors were going through the final run-through.
Whether his passing has anything to do with the actors' performances is obviously difficult to quantify. Suffice to say they put so much into the play that Mortimer would have been proud of their endeavours.
A Voyage Round My Father covers thirty years of Mortimer's life, from his childhood with the strictness he faced both at home and at boarding school, to the death of his father who cast an enormous shadow over everything Mortimer did and was the inspiration for the character Rumpole in the television series Rumpole of the Bailey.
A cast of eight portray more than thirty characters in settings as varied as a school and a film studio as well as the family home and a court of law. In true New Vic style there are few props and little to slow down the action from one scene to the next.
Roy Simpson takes the role of the character known in the play only as Father. He produces a memorable performance. He's superb as the cantankerous, bossy, severe parent and gives a touching depiction of a man who goes blind in middle age but refuses to let it change his life.
Antony Eden, in his first appearance in the theatre-in-the-round, immerses himself in the part of Son, equally at home as a startled young boy being sent away to school and as the lawyer who wants to make mischief while cross-examining a witness in court.
Former RSC actor John Killoran uses his expressive facial features to maximum effect in a variety of roles and is especially impressive as a quirky headmaster.
Robin Simpson's versatility is exceptional and his portrayal of a teacher who berates his young pupil for not knowing Pythagoras' theorem justifiably earns applause.
India Fisher, Vivienne Rowdon, Anny Tobin and James Topping complete the cast, bringing out all the wit and incisiveness of Mortimer's script with excellent timing.
New Vic artistic director Theresa Heskins and her creative team rise to the challenge of bringing Mortimer's memoirs to the stage; their skill is in making a difficult task look relatively easy.
The only aspect of the production which I found strange is in the relationship between Father and Son - I can't decide whether this is down to Mortimer's words, Heskins' direction or a little of both. There's never an expression of love between the two, despite their close bond. Son has respect, even admiration for Father but neither can bring himself to reveal his feelings; as an audience you have to assume that deep down they have affection for each other.
Even on Father's death Son simply states that he's lonely; the play ends on a slightly unsatisfactory note.
On the whole, though, A Voyage Round My Father is a fitting tribute to a fine author and a wonderful, unique character.
"A Voyage Round My Father" continues until Saturday, February 14th
Reviewer: Steve Orme