The Theatreguide.London Review
A Voyage Round My Father
Donmar Theatre Summer 2006; Wyndham's Theatre Autumn 2006
John Mortimer's 1970 autobiographical sketch is not a very good play.
It can be a good vehicle for a star, and there are enough people who take pleasure in any opportunity to watch Derek Jacobi at work for it to succeed.
But even the Jacobi fans, while finding no cause for unhappiness in his performance, may feel vaguely dissatisfied with the packaging.
This is the sort of play you will think you have seen before even if you haven't - a narrator takes us through his life, with particular focus on the strong-willed, overpowering figure of his blind barrister father.
But Mortimer's title is itself an admission of defeat. The play keeps telling us how imposing and significant and worthy of our attention the father is, but the character himself is only vaguely sketched in.
Again and again we have to take the son-narrator's word for qualities and stature the author simply doesn't show us.
Another way of looking at that is that Mortimer leaves his star a lot of space in which to create the character he hasn't.
And Derek Jacobi, along with director Thea Sharrock, finds (or brings out of himself) considerably more humour and charm than others have in the role. He's more of a pussycat than the tiger Mortimer may have intended, but he is fun to be around.
But yet another problem with the play (and sign of Mortimer's struggle with the figure at its centre) is that the father is not always at the centre.
The demands of linear autobiography take the son off to school and the world of work, and some of the strongest scenes - certainly some of the funniest - involve totally incidental figures like a schoolmaster and a mad legal client.
Those who come primarily to see Jacobi may be frustrated not only by how undefined and vaguely irrelevant to the proceedings his character is, but by how much of the time he is offstage.
The son is really a thankless role, blatantly more a narrative device than a character, but Dominic Rowan is personable. Offering even less to the actress is the role of wife-mother, but Joanna David soldiers on with it admirably.
Christopher Benjamin as the headmaster and Neil Boorman as the client and other passing figures quietly and expertly steal their scenes.
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