The Life I Lead by James Kettle, Northcott Theatre Exeter, 5*****, Cormac Richards





RUNNING TIME – 1 hours 50 minutes – 1 interval

Northcott Box Office – 01392 726363








David Tomlinson became the archetypal English gentlemen in Hollywood films in the 1960s and 1970s; diffident, correct, slightly daft and always likeable. Before then he was a mainstay of British romantic comedies and films set in WW2. He was a character actor who you were comfortable with, you almost felt you knew him. In James Kettle’s outstanding new play, we find out that we didn’t know him very well at all.


Played out on an eye-catching Magrittesque designed set by Lee Newby – clouds as a backdrop, a door with a figure of a man cut out of it and bowler hats dotted about – we are not sure if this might he heaven or some other resting place. We first meet David as he enters in pyjamas and dressing gown looking much like Miles Jupp, the comedian, actor and writer. After introducing himself to a full audience he steps behind a screen and transforms into a formal suit and, somehow, into David Tomlinson. Well, David Tomlinson as he is best remembered in ‘Mary Poppins’.


What follows is a delightful look back at the life and work of the actor as he narrates incidents from his life, both professional and personal – it is quite a story. The tales of wartime derring-do and enjoying the company of Walt Disney are splendid and pitted with great laughs, but it is the personal reflections which really make the biggest impression. The whole theatre came to a silent halt as we hear about the death of Tomlinson’s first wife – it is a devastating moment.  The relationship between Tomlinson and his stern Father is explored touchingly and with great humour, that is, until we hear about the ‘second family’ he had and the effect it had on his Mother when she shows her son the mis-addressed letter she had kept hidden for many years. Tomlinson found it so hard to communicate with his Father; reflected in his difficulty with his own son Willie – until he found out the nature of the young boy’s autism at a time when the condition was far from understood.


Taking us through the story, Miles Jupp is superb. Completely convincing in his lightness of touch, jaunty delivery and perfect timing. I cannot have been the only audience member who became entranced by the physical similarities between actor and character. Jupp was the ideal host, making you laugh and then stopping you in your tracks. As a servant to Kettle’s script, you could not find a better one.


Sensitive direction by Didi Hopkins and Selina Cadell ensured that the script flowed well and gave time for the great stories to be fully explored and enjoyed. The intermittent music from Eliza Thompson linked the ‘scenes’ gently and without fuss.


‘The Life I Lead’ was, of course, the song sung by Tomlinson as Mr Banks in ‘Mary Poppins’ and provides a wonderfully double meaning title for the play.  Later in life, following his retirement, Tomlinson wrote his autobiography called ‘Luckier Than Most’ – a modest title for a modest man who was indeed lucky. I doubt many would not feel lucky having watched this performance. When 2019 comes to an end I am not sure I will have seen much better.


‘The Life I Lead’ is a beautifully crafted and supremely well performed story. It is a small theatrical masterpiece.





Miles Jupp – David Tomlinson


Writer – James Kettle

Director – Didi Hopkins

Director – Selina Cadell

Designer – Lee Newby

Lighting Design – Matthew Eagland

Music – Eliza Thompson


Production by Jonathan Church Productions and Exeter Northcott Theatre






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