As titles go, “A Voyage Round My Father” is wholly accurate. John Mortimer’s gently reverberant memory play from 1970 is a filial look back without anger at the man who shaped his life. In Thea Sharrock’s tender Donmar Warehouse revival, what gives the neatly dovetailed reveries an edge is the perspective of the mild-mannered narrator. As much autobiography as biography, this is a story told by a son who, in the telling, unobtrusively presents his own self-portrait.
“Paint me the picture,” is the repeated cry of his father (Derek Jacobi). That imperious request to make a description in words proved useful for an only son who grew up to become the playwright, novelist and screenwriter most famous for his creation of “Rumpole of the Bailey” — like Mortimer and his father, a lawyer in love with words.
Yet that demand by his father is not merely a matter of unselfishly training his son’s eye; it’s an entirely practical request. Father needs someone else’s eyes to do the work because he cannot: Up a ladder doing a bit of gardening one day, he struck his head on a branch and was blinded.
The sudden loss of sight defines the future behavior of all those around him, especially his stoic, shy wife (Joanna David), but not the man himself, whose word remains law (metaphorically and literally). His family’s support means Father’s career as a high-flying divorce barrister is unimpeded, and much of the play pits his grandstanding lawyerly brilliance against the faltering steps of his son.
Designer Robert Jones and lighting designer Peter Mumford neatly collude to use the simplest of means to offer up Mortimer’s affectionate portrait, using the full Donmar Warehouse stage in contrasting ways. With the back wall lit, a riot of English blooms and grasses is revealed to conjure Father’s beloved garden. With the wall neutralized in shadow and little but the odd chair and occasional prop, the space easily becomes a schoolroom, a film set, a courtroom or a house etched in Mortimer’s memory.
As the son, Dominic Rowan leads auds sweetly and discreetly through the flashbacks, standing both physically and emotionally to one side of his irascible but initially winning father.
After giving a shockingly powerful display of not so much tough as terrifying parenting as Philip of Spain in Michael Grandage’s “Don Carlos,” Jacobi returns to fatherhood here with a far more humorous tone.
A man whose chief sport late in life is starting arguments, he hurls himself vocally at a list of pet hates like “runny eggs, waiting for things” with gleeful relish. His eyes gleam in delight as he thrills his young grandchildren with his extravagant digestions of Shakespeare, including a weekend with the Macbeths: “Dunsinane … what a horrible place.”
The perfectly diffident Rowan gradually acquires gravitas as the evening proceeds and lends a rueful tone to the recollections. He shepherds a child actor through scenes of early schooldays and Christopher Benjamin contributes a deliciously funny cameo of benevolent pomposity as the headmaster summed up by his owlish glasses.
What lifts the play above mere amiability is the son’s increasingly awareness at his father’s default setting of belittling his son’s accomplishments. His treatment of his son is brusquely British. Affection is held firmly at bay and the arms-length policy imperceptibly topples over into selfishness. He ruefully observes of his impending marriage that his father slowly becomes “reconciled to the idea of me as a prospective husband to his daughter-in-law.”
Free of the blood tie that binds, it’s the son’s wife, Elizabeth (powerfully calm Natasha Little), who squares up to the father, charging him with never having said anything truly serious to his son. It’s the dramatic highlight of the play. Her entirely accurate accusation echoes into an ensuing horrified silence fraught with subtext. It’s as if searchlights have suddenly been trained on each member of the scene, the tension eventually broken when the father ducks the challenge by singing a favorite folk song.
Even when embodying moral weakness or depicting life oozing out of him, Jacobi’s tireless energy keeps the play afloat. Paradoxically, once the son abandons his father’s rules and guidelines and finds his own voice, “I began enjoying a modest success.” The same could be said of the evening, which balances a lack of theatrical ambition with a pleasingly insightful production.