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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Wyndam's, London

By Rachel Halliburton

Like Kafka, John Mortimer was denounced by his father for having tendencies towards the typewriter, rather than towards the legal profession. There, however, the similarities end. Where Kafka channeled his writer's energy into searing studies of alienation, Mortimer revealed a talent for the kind of anecdote that can be savored like (and possibly with) a very good glass of brandy.  No matter how harsh the human realities,  Mortimer's talent for eccentricity-fueled wit ensures that his audiences are more struck by the cozily articulated absurdities of a situation than by the pain that underlies it. 

Thus tragedy transforms to wry comedy in Mortimer's story of a divorce barrister who loses his sight after smashing his head against an apple-tree branch. Where others would have been devastated by blindness, he simply ignores it, and ensures through robust emotional tyranny that his family does as well. His long-suffering wife (a heroically restrained Joanna David) must read him explicit details from his divorce cases on the train, while in his beloved garden everyone must help him go earwig hunting. 'Paint the picture' he declaims to his son as he looks sightlessly before him, and the small boy obliges with colorful verbal depictions of everything from flowers to females.

A perfect writer's training one might surmise - ironically, it proves, because that small boy is none other than John Mortimer.  Two actors play him, one schoolchild age, the other adult - but their combined personalities cannot match the dominating presence of Derek Jacobi's blind barrister. Like the man he depicts, his stentorian voice - all opinionated vowels and clipped consonants - is perfectly calculated to make courtrooms, audiences, and those he loves fall silent. He is riveting in his monstrousness - a Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes-quoting titan - but it's clear that those who love him must do so on condition of being reduced to bit parts in his life.

As a result 'A Voyage' is more one-man show than fully-fleshed drama, and Thea Sharrock's slightly stilted production can't quite mask its dramatic shortcomings. That's not to say it lacks charm, but its appeal lies in its evocation of a stiff-upper-lipped Latin-quoting England that's steadily vanishing.  The bucolic flower-strewn backdrop might have been designed by a latter-day Constable, the opening music could have been recorded in any English cathedral. It seems an oversight that scones and cream aren't being served in the auditorium.

Yet there's also a beguiling universality to the questions the play raises. How does anyone cope first with living with and then losing a parent? As TS Eliot might have observed, Mortimer's animated anecdotes set off 'footfalls in the memory', even though we ourselves never opened the door into the old man's garden.



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