A Voyage Round My Father is an autobiographical play by Sir John Mortimer, who is perhaps most famous for being the writer of the TV series ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’. The play was first written for radio and appeared as three half hour sketches on the BBC in 1963. It later made its way to the West End stage with Sir Alec Guinness, then the screen with no less than Sir Laurence Olivier and now it is making a return to the stage. The title of the play intrigued me so much that I had to look it up. I discovered that it is a nod to the 1790’s French work ‘Voyage Around My Room’ by Xavier De Maistre. De Maistre wrote his book while under house arrest and it is said that he wrote a chapter a day to keep himself sane, each day choosing to shine the spotlight on an everyday object within the room of his imprisonment. Surreal indeed. I guess this might conjure up Mortimer’s own sense of being trapped in a situation beyond his control, and also the mixture of the absurdity and mundanity of the subject matter of the piece that we are about to see.
This lavish production by former Director of the National Theatre Sir Richard Eyre sees the legendary Rupert Everett taking on the role of the eponymous Father. The action centres around the relationship he has with the Son (Jack Bardoe). Neither character is named within the play which creates a sense of epistemic distance and suggests that these are archetypes (or perhaps stereotypes) for our consideration and amusement. The Father is an old-fashioned man of the law. He refuses to take life too seriously but his attitudes are occasionally Victorian. The Son is modern by comparison, a free spirit and an ‘arty type’ who only wants to write and create. This is the source of the tension that ultimately drives the piece.
In Act One the Father is blinded after a bump to the head whilst pruning an apple tree in his beloved garden. His last sight of his Son is as a small boy and it seems that this is forever how he will view him from here on in. Everett is wonderful as the Father – he gives him a waspish irritability mixed in with a roguishness that is really quite appealing and although some of his attitudes are cringeworthy you cannot help but be charmed by him.
Bardoe has a difficult job of work here as he plays the Son all the way from childhood through to adulthood. His boyish spectacles and school uniform take some initial getting used to in the early scenes. But once you’re over this, he does a great job of narrating the action and conveying the mysteriousness with which he views the Father. Bardoe plays the admiration of the Son for the Father perfectly, always tinged of course with a sense of disappointment and even fearfulness of the irascibility of the old man. Inevitably, the Son is sent away to boarding school and his sense of isolation from his Father is exacerbated further.
The highlight of Act One for me is the school master (Julian Wadham) who warns the boarding schoolboys of (amongst other things) the dangers of saucy dreams, advising cold baths and the like. It is a quite marvellous depiction and Wadham has the patronising intonation and dotty gestures of the authoritarian but slightly past it teacher off to a tee. There are many stories relayed by the narrating Son and vignettes are played out as if to emphasise each point. This does occasionally feel laboured and formulaic, but there are some real gems within.
Act Two sees the further decline of the Father, portrayed with real skill by Everett, and the action rattles along at breakneck speed. The Son is now grown up and we have journeyed with him through 30 years of this unfathomable relationship with the Father. He is now married to a divorced woman (Allegra Marland) and she makes a big impression. She challenges the patriarchal and out of date tropes and she has some amazing lines which are both hilarious and cutting. Her frustration and pain at realising that the Son is gradually becoming the Father are juxtaposed with the denial and resignation of the Mother (played with superb understatement by Eleanor David) who is by now so brow beaten and desensitised to the whole situation there is little hope for her rehabilitation.
The finale is really rather moving without being overly sentimental – I’m left feeling that I want to know how life looks for the Son and his family hereafter. I’m also wondering exactly how much of this story is actually true and how much is poetic licence. Whatever the truth, this is without doubt a wonderful piece of theatre. The way that Everett depicts the gradual decline of the once great old man is masterful. Bardoe is measured and very sympathetic as the Son. The wider supporting cast do a splendid job of conjuring up a different era and the whimsy of the piece through a series of cameos and scenes within the scenes. It is, in the vein of De Maistre, a study of the eccentric and the mundane. Perhaps it was written with the same sense of frustration and desire to alleviate frustration. If you want to see some acting professionals at the top of their game in a ‘proper’ piece of theatre, get yourself to the Theatre Royal in Nottingham this week – Voyage Round My Father is playing until 18th November.