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When I was in my teens, I saw the first West End production of John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father, starring Alec Guinness, and found it an enchantment. In the ensuing 35 years I have never seen it again. I missed the screen version with Laurence Olivier. Now at last it is back in the West End, in the Donmar Warehouse production starring Derek Jacobi. Is it true, though, that all things come to him who waits? For me, what’s gone is enchantment.
A Voyage Round My Father is an exercise in idyllic English charm, a sinfonia concertante of darling English eccentricity. The narrator’s wordy, inspiring, game-playing, horticultural, blind father is part of a fabric of adorable oddballs. Even the local lesbians have a parrot called Miss Garbo. The spade (ie the father’s blindness) may not be called a spade.
There are inklings that Mortimer intended something less sweet. The narrator’s wife alone mentions the blindness head-on, and the play’s one striking moment is when she suddenly points out that the entire family’s talk is to do with stories, games, jokes, but is never serious. The narrator seems to concur, saying of his father “I think he had no beliefs.”
But such moments are allowed to pass like ripples in the otherwise tranquil pool of father-loving tenderness.
Many will be enchanted by Jacobi’s wholly unbelievable account of
the father, which is all charm at its most showy, especially as demonstrated in his bizarre but burnished bel canto vocalism. Thea Sharrock directs, and the play does not benefit from her frequent emphasis on flat, front-facing blocking of the actors. As the narrator, Dominic Rowan – although he speaks extremely well – suffers in particular: his upper-body stiffness and facial sheepishness suggest he has been told to face front too often. I can be allergic to Joanna David’s brand of long-suffering graciousness, but I am grateful here for her sheer focus. As the mother, she exemplifies good manners without once trying to join in the surrounding, forgettable charm-fest.
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