JOHN Mortimer, who would have celebrated his centenary this year, is perhaps best remembered for creating the immortal Rumpole of the Bailey. His largely autobiographical play A Voyage Round My Father first came to public attention 60 years ago, as three short radio plays.
Later adapted for film and for television and stage plays, this homage to his blind barrister father is an affectionate look back into a time so different from the 21st century that some younger audiences might struggle to recognise it at all. His friend, the director Richard Eyre, marks what would have been Mortimer’s 100th birthday with a new look at this episodic and charming play, and it opened at Bath Theatre Royal before an eagerly awaited national tour.
In all its iterations, the character of Father has always been played by a famous actor, and here the plum role falls in the lap of Rupert Everett, following in the footsteps of Olivier, Guinness, Derek Jacobi etc. The play largely tells the story of John Mortimer’s youth, brought up by an irascible, inspired and totally charismatic father and a devoted mother. His father was a noted barrister in the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court. Clifford Mortimer, who died in 1961, was a force of nature in the courts. Early in his career he hit his head on a taxi door (or a branch in the garden, according to the play) and was blinded. But no-one, neither in his family nor at his chambers nor in court, referred to his blindness. And he was a VERY successful adversary in the courts.
John was his only child, brought up cocooned in the family fable that there was nothing wrong with his father. Instead he partook in the nightly earwig hunts in the garden and thought that his father’s conversations, which could range from ancient Egypt to East End prostitution, were all quite normal. Exposure to prep school was hardly less odd, with a headmaster whose idea of “the facts of life” centred on cold showers and long runs. “Father” determinedly gave no advice, but criticised and demeaned his son whenever possible. John Mortimer thrived – no huffy “I was psychologically abused by my parents” from him.
Everett evidently relishes the chance to play this oddly loveable man, and Eleanor David is perfectly believable as Mother, with Julian Wadham as the headmaster, John Dougall as a hilarious former jockey, Calum Finlay as an inventive schoolfriend and Allegra Marland as John’s wife. Many in the audience will remember John Mortimer, who died in 14 years ago. Jack Bardoe, in this ‘narrator’ role, will probably grow into the erudite, witty barrister and writer we would recognise as the production’s run continues.
Richard Eyre’s production is a worthy tribute to Mortimer’s brilliant wit and keen observation, and an affectionate look at a time that seems aeons ago.
Photographs by Manuel Harland