Dear Lupin – May 2015

Experience: 7/10

By Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer

Directed by Philip Franks

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 18th May 2015

This was a sweet, humorous and occasionally moving story about the relationship between a real-life father and son. The son, Charles, was so wayward from an early age that his father Roger named him Lupin after the errant son in Diary Of A Nobody, though from this version of events it’s doubtful whether the original Lupin would have been able to keep up with Charles as he drank, smoked and snorted his way through his schooldays and beyond.

Roger was a racing journalist, with a long career at the Sunday Times as well as writing several books on the history of horseracing. His wife and Charles’ mother Cynthia, nicknamed Nidnod, was frequently referred to in the course of the story, and became one of those off-stage characters whose presence is felt all the more for not being seen. The story was told through narration and acting, with additional characters being played by Roger as needed; while he refused to dress up in a frock, he did at least wear a wig for his brief stint as a Soho prostitute.

Given that this was a performance of snippets, the set had to accommodate that kind of narrative, and this one worked very well to support the action. We were sitting over to the right of the front stalls, so my view of the right hand side of the set was limited, but I was aware of a large doorway on that side. Round from that I could see about four large wall panels with wallpaper most of the way up; this gave way to blue paint near the top to suggest sky. The rightmost panel held a fireplace, the next panel had some shelves, while the others were largely obscured by a jumble of furniture which came in very handy for a mountaineering exercise during army training. A filing cabinet provided some drawers, and various props were secreted about the place, ready to be produced when needed. There was a chaise over by the front right corner which Roger liked to recline on and which also served as a bed for Charles at one point, and another chair, one of those high-backed computer chairs, which came in very handy, especially at the start.

However, the prize for most versatile piece of furniture has to go to the desk. It was a desk most of the time, naturally, but it also became the car – the headlights were desk lamps shining out of the side cupboards – and it was pushed and pulled around the right hand side of the stage into a number of positions for various reasons. It even showed up Charles’ growing weakness when he had to push it one last time; he wasn’t able to move it as easily as he had before and was puffing quite a bit when he finally got it into place.

The pre-show music was Gilbert and Sullivan – songs from HMS Pinafore. When the curtain rose, the music changed to the Eton Boating Song – we would hear snatches of this throughout the evening. Charles entered, and after surveying the room for a few moments, he whisked a dustsheet off the computer chair as the music changed to the Mastermind theme. With fluorescent blue lights at the top of the panels and the rest of the stage largely dark, Roger came on to answer questions about his own life, scoring an amazing number of points in the time (about 36?). Then, while Roger lounged on the chaise and read his paper, Charles explained how he had come to write the book, Dear Lupin, using his father’s letters which he had come to realise contained not just good advice, wit and humour, but a lot of love and affection for his son. Roger acquiesced in presenting the material on stage provided that a) he didn’t have to wear a dress and b) there was plenty of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Charles was born on the day that Teal won the Grand National (5th April 1952), and we saw him riding a small rocking horse while his father commentated on the race. This was the only time Roger himself did a commentary, although there were a number of others played during the performance, as racing naturally provided a strong backdrop to the father/son relationship. Schooldays at Eton involved a guerrilla war against the rules which culminated in an attempt by Charles and a friend to lose their virginity with the assistance of a prostitute in Soho. They were nearly sacked for this, but then the other chap’s godfather turned up and put a stop to that: Viscount Montgomery of Alamein no less.

Roger’s first letter to Charles coincided with Foinavon winning the National (1967), so we got to hear the famous Michael O’Hare commentary for the pile up at the fence after Beecher’s Brook which allowed the outsider to come through and win. The Eton Boating Song was played a couple of times during this section: the first time, father and son waltzed together, swinging each other round to be able to deliver a line or two to the audience; the second time it was a much raunchier version to accompany the trip to Soho.

Despite escaping expulsion, Charles left Eton, and after some time decided to join the army, enlisting with his father’s old regiment the Coldstream Guards. Physically bottom of the class, he apparently had a good eye with a rifle, but it was during a training exercise which required his troop of recruits to do some engineering thingy up a mountain that he changed his attitude and started working so hard that he nearly passed out as an officer. But most addicts have a self-destruct button ever ready to be pressed, and Charles was no exception. He left just before he could make his father immensely proud, and began his main career as a spiv in earnest. Interval.

The G&S during the interval was from The Mikado, and we had quite a selection before the curtain rose for the second half. Roger stood centre stage without his trousers, displaying a lurid pair of leopard skin bathing trunks. Apparently they were a present from his son, who was now manufacturing these somewhere in Asia, and thought his father might like some. While Roger made himself more presentable, Charles continued his story. In 1977 – The Minstrel, ridden by Lester Piggott, won the Derby – Charles went into hospital for a liver biopsy, but little slowed him down when it came to hedonistic pleasures, and eventually he ended up in rehab. This, coupled with a diagnosis of HIV, made Charles less aware of his father’s failing health, especially as his letters lost none of their trademark humour. But finally his father had to be admitted to hospital – the bed was pulled forward through the fireplace – and then into a nursing home where he died.

Despite being HIV positive, Charles survived to the present day. With his concluding memory of a birthday trip to a garage and then a transport café, he and his father danced one last time to the Eton Boating Song, hugged, and the lights went out for the end of the play.

There was a lot to like in this production, not least the humour and the personal revelations about Charles’ own life, the essential backdrop to the letters themselves. I didn’t always hear the lines, but the characters were strongly presented and easy to warm to. The casting of father and son actors James and Jack Fox as the play’s father and son adds a little piquancy to the mix, although they don’t look as similar as some other father/son pairings we’ve seen (e.g. Timothy and Sam West). But they worked brilliantly together, and are undoubtedly having a great deal of fun along with the hard work.

Incidentally, the car came into the first half. It was a Ferrari which Charles was able to buy through winning a bet which entailed leaping onto a display table during an auction at Sotheby’s and singing Blue Suede Shoes in the style of Elvis Presley – very funny. The desk’s transformation was finished off by Charles holding a steering wheel in front of himself as he sat on the desk, and both he and his father, who had joined him for the ride, leaned this way and that as Charles swung the car round corners, swerved to avoid obstacles, etc.; all very well done.

I won’t jot down all the funny jokes (even if I could remember them all), but I did like the one about the difference between Fanny Craddock and a cross country run: one of them is a pant in the country…

© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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