A Voyage Round My Father

John Mortimer
Donmar Warehouse
(2006)

Playwright, novelist, autobiographer and first but by no means least barrister, Sir John Mortimer has made good use of his late father in every one of these careers.

The far from conventional barrister, who made his name between the wars, claimed that he had enjoyed every minute of his life and on seeing this play, one can believe it.

He not only talked his son into the Law but advised him on how best to conduct himself in advocacy, though his quirky style took some time to assimilate. His ability to find the right word is beautifully encapsulated when his son tells us that "He sent words out into the darkness, like soldiers sent off to battle, and was never short of reinforcements."

Perhaps more significantly, the splendid old man, who did not acknowledge the concept of tact, also provided prime material for this play, first produced in 1970, Clinging to the Wreckage, his son's first volume of autobiography and lent many of his foibles to the writer's finest creation, the much-loved Rumpole.

Designer Robert Jones sets the scene simply, offering a bare wooden stage in the shape of a rowing boat's hull in front of a strip of wild flowers, to represent the family garden in the Chilterns and, without the flowers, a court house.

The play follows the Son, from early days as a child (played on press night by a Lewis Aaltonen) who loved to make up tall stories through to adulthood, always focusing on the interactions with his father.

Even when his son was a child, the Father, never named in the script, was an elderly man. However, his behaviour belied both his profession and his age.

One of his charming traits was to completely ignore the fact that his juvenile son was not his social and intellectual equal. He was incapable of dissembling and if a spade crossed his path, that is exactly what he would call it, unaware of the considerable embarrassment that he sometimes caused

Sir Derek Jacobi, in a part played by Lord Olivier on television, has enormous fun playing a larger than life character who literally ignored his blindness unless it could be used to his benefit, particularly when he resorted to rascally gamesmanship to win a divorce case.

Under director Thea Sharrock, who has demonstrated considerable empathy with distinguished actors of late, putting Richard Griffiths, John Hurt and Ken Stott through their paces in Heroes, Sir Derek manages to catch the character perfectly with his sense of fun, explosive temper and love of both the ribald anecdote and Shakespearean quotation.

Where Joanna David's willingly enslaved Mother worshipped the old man, there was a breath of fresh air when the young man met and married self-possessed novelist, Penelope Mortimer, in the play called Elizabeth and played by the elegant Natasha Little.

This divorcee, with children who came close to hero-worshipping their grandpa, was happy to stand up to a man who was used to getting his way. Pleasingly, he respected and loved her for it.

When the play seems to be getting too serious, Sir John brings us down to earth largely with sexual innuendo, best demonstrated by a comic speech from headmaster Christopher Benjamin that euphemistically tries to tell his pupils about the birds and the bees but gets no closer than the undesirability of dreams and unsolicited cake.

There is also a series of witty cameos from Neil Boorman who plays four eccentrics, every one of whom could compete with the old man for battiness.

This autobiographical portrait of a family provides sound entertainment and strong performances, in particular from Sir Derek Jacobi and Dominic Rowan as his narrator son.

At one point, Elizabeth remarks that she was not a fan of husband's first play which to her mind was "not serious" and she might have added "particularly challenging". Neither is A Voyage Round My Father, but the playwright's ear for dialogue is perfect and his sense of humour ensures that the audience will enjoy their two-and-a-quarter hour stay at the Donmar.

Philip Fisher