(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 27 April)
It’s no criticism of Michael Simkins’ stage version of the exchange of letters between racing commentator Roger Mortimer and his wayward son Charlie to say that in many ways this is comfortable theatre. You don’t have to be a parent to recognise familiar similarities and divergences; most of us have experienced these – even if unrecognised at the time – while growing up.
Mortimer senior (James Fox) had a three-part life. He was an officer in the Coldstream Guards, a PoW for most of the Second World War and one of the most esteemed of radio commentators thereafter. In between, he accommodated himself to a wife might describe as maverick, raised comparatively trouble-free daughters and a son (Jack Fox) who lived on the wild side – in more senses than one.
Philip Franks’ direction gives equal weight to the father’s often exasperated aphorisms and the son’s gleeful kicking over all the traces – social (nearly expelled from Eton), professional (managing to exist without any real employment) and sexual (a libidinous gay lifestyle culminating in a diagnosis of HIV-positive)). His designer Adrian Linford gives us a multi-purpose set to complement all this visually.
Fox senior is the actor who attracts a certain proportion of the audience. He doesn’t disappoint. It is Fox junior who really turns in the acting tour-de-force of the evening, making us understand why this young man of promise turned out the way that he did. Dear Lupin (the title refers to the equally frustrated exchange of letters in Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody). That was fiction. This is fact, as Charlie Mortimer’s publication makes clear. The letters make good reading. This dramatisation is good theatre.
Dear Lupin runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 2 May and at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 4 and 9 May.