Father, dear Father

THEATRE; A Voyage Round My Father Oxford Playhouse

The child is father of the man: as Peter Nichols once observed, there's a special case in which that statement is true when a dramatist asserts the privilege of bringing his father back to life on the stage. By a strange coincidence, Nichols's 1971 play Forget-Me-Not Lane0 opened at the Greenwich Theatre just a year after the premier there of John Mortimer's A Voyage Round My Father, a piece that is now revived in an enjoyable and touching production by Laurence Boswell at the Oxford Playhouse.

The two works have strong affinities. Both are autobiographical memory plays in which direct narration from a middle-aged son is combined with remembered scenes, involving his younger self, of a past dominated by a loud, over-bearing, impossible father.

In the Nichols, this latter is an autodidactic travelling salesman who treats the world to an ongoing lecture-cum-vaudeville act on the evils of dangling prepositions, ear wax and most known forms of pleasure. In the Mortimer, the father is a divorced barrister, a loner and individualist ("Is execution done on Cawdor?" he would typically ask his baffled five- year-old), whose blindness is never referred to by his family.

Forget-Me-Not Lane brings past and present into a much more dynamic collision, though, as memories of the author's wartime adolescence hurtle through a semi-circle of doors, and start talking back to the middle-aged hero: "I'm part of your mental landscape forever, duckie." This dramatic conceit is a perfect way of illustrating how the past isn't passive but nags away with unfinished psychic business, and how we only understand people when it is too late to be of any use.

By comparison, as Boswell's skilful, funny production cannot quite disguise, A Voyage Round My Father is a rather static and sedate affair, the narrator's son either onlooker or participant in the re-enactments but never shown in vigorous contention with the people remembered in the play's own present tense.

The well-judged look of this revival certainly gives the reminiscences the right fluidity and speed. Idit Nathan's design evokes the father's beloved garden through a permanent set of rather abstract outsize tiles which can be flooded with yellow light to create the effect of a golden summer's day or flap open to produce, say, a sunken witness box for the scenes in court. I take the exact opposite view from the lady I overheard in the interval who said it was more moving on the television because you could see all the lovely flowers that the Father had to have described to him.

Robert Lang is splendid as Mortimer senior, a fleshy, temper-flushed walrus with a glazed, defiant stare and a vocal delivery which, if you are blind yourself, you would swear was coming from Ralph Richardson. He shows you both what is infuriating and what is admirable about the man.

Inveighing against parsons, he is told by his new daughter-in-law that her father is one. "I know," he replies, his face lighting up with the smile of triumph of someone who has made a wicked move in a game. Lynne Farleigh is also excellent as his loyal, resigned wife. The play, though not as penetratingly or ambivalently as Forget-Me-Not Lane, shows how men turn into their fathers. Here, I'm afraid, Mark Tandy's two-dimensional performance as the grown-up son suggests that that process will not get very far.

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