Jamie De Courcey
John Mortimer’s affectionate portrait of his barrister father makes a deserving transfer to the West End after a successful run at the Donmar Warehouse. It’s a gentle tale, highly dependent on the performer in the lead role who, fortunately in this case, is Derek Jacobi in top form.
The play is very much a character study of a distinctive and often difficult man. Blinded in middle age by a blow to the head that dislodged his retinas, he never allowed his condition to be referred to and made few, if any allowances for it, instead relying heavily on his devoted wife to retain an air of life as it was before. Jacobi, as one would expect, gives a faultless performance in the role, charismatic, compelling, vulnerable when he needs to be, aging convincingly as the play proceeds. Unfortunately his performance is such that everything else in the production is somewhat overshadowed.
Dominic Rowan as the son and therefore a stand-in for Mortimer, has little to do except act the narrator, though later in the play he does succeed in conveying the subtle ways in which his behaviour begins to echo his father’s. Joanna David, as the devoted wife and mother, and Natasha Little as Elizabeth, the divorcee that Dominic Rowan’s character eventually marries both put in good performances, but they remain peripheral in a play that is essentially all about a son’s relationship with his father.
And this is the chief problem with the play – there is no real narrative drive, it tells you little about this man and what makes him tick, only that he was an excellent barrister (specializing in the murky world of divorce cases and marital breakdown), was fond of drowning earwigs and disliked houseguests. He remains a series of quirks viewed through a filter of genuine filial affection and Thea Sharrock’s soft-centred production does little to build on this. Sharrock, who directed the (even more whimsical) Heroes at the same venue last year, is adept at drawing out the play’s gentle comedy but adds little in the way of dramatic weight to the proceedings.
The production maintains Robert Jones’ simple brick design from its Donmar incarnation and contains some lovely comic touches: the curmudgeonly prep school headmaster (Christopher Benjamin) who insists on being called Noah and has issues with boys who “butter their hair,” the trenches-set playlets, complete with barbed wire, that the son and his friend Reigate act out for his father (who sits through them appreciatively though of course he cannot see them) and Dominic Rowan’s fumbled attempts as a young barrister to mimic his father’s cross-examination techniques.
Voyage drifts towards a moving conclusion, as Jacobi’s character grows older and frailer, but it never quite reaches the emotional heights one would hope for, having spent two hours in this character’s presence. Still, Jacobi doesn’t put a foot wrong and the play contains much that entertains – one just can’t help wishing for a little more bite and insight.