"The Bearable Lightness of Being"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 07/02/19

I came away from 'The Life I Lead' at Exeter's Northcott Theatre marvelling at the profound effect of experiencing a remarkable performance of a fine script enhanced by a thought-provoking set and well-judged music. Miles Jupp's evocation of actor David Tomlinson revealed a good-humoured man walking lightly on the earth; a loving husband with an aptitude for joy; a kind, funny father touched by tragedy and betrayal, yet not defined by either.

James Kettle's script, like Miles' performance, has a complete absence of sentimentality. The complexities of relationships between fathers and sons are faced unflinchingly; personal tragedies and the heartbreak of wartime loss are powerful threads, handled with a rare mix of delicacy and robustness. I laughed, I chuckled, I smiled, and gasped audibly when the laughter stopped and tears threatened.

The careful structure of the play laces the devastating personal revelations with unalloyed entertainment: stories of life in repertory theatre; the sheer happiness of being an actor; deft thumbnail sketches of popular plays and fearsome landladies. This was of particular interest to me as my great-grandfather was a Bristol-based theatrical costumier and his daughter, my grandmother, was a theatrical landlady at the time when David Tomlinson was up and coming. She could be fierce but she was actually very kind! I enjoyed wondering if she had ever met the young actor.

David Tomlinson was much in demand for stage work, leading to a successful film career. An encounter with Walt Disney led to roles in two particularly well loved films – 'Mary Poppins' and 'Bedknobs and Broomsticks'. The working relationship between David Tomlinson and Walt Disney was fascinating as was a glimpse into Disney helping his star find the motivation for the character of Mr Banks.

I thought designer Lee Newby's witty Magritte-inspired set was right on so many levels - the bowler hats; the door; the heavenly blue theme and clouds referencing David Tomlinson's time as a pilot (as well as giving a sense of summer skies befitting this 'glass half-full' man.) More than that, though, Magritte's work is known for challenging observers' preconditioned perceptions of reality, which chimes with the aim of Miles Jupp and James Kettle that "people [will] come away thinking, 'I never knew he had a life like that.'" Thanks to directors Selina Cadell and Didi Hopkins and their creative and production teams that aim, and more besides, was achieved. For my part, I came away wanting to cultivate the lightness of touch that made this such a fully rounded, life-affirming story.

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