Mum usually does the Christmas presents, doesn’t she. Stockings full of treats – socks and Lego, even though we’re all in our twenties now. But last year there was a separate present from you. A book, specially chosen. It was called Dear Lupin and was a series of letters by Roger Mortimer written to his son Charlie. I read most of it on Christmas Day.
I’m not sure if you’ve even read it. You should, though, because it’s wonderful. Roger was a racing journalist, Eton-educated, ex-military. He wrote with wit and boundless affection for his troublesome son. Charlie, affectionately nicknamed Lupin after the son in Diary of a Nobody, despite the uprootings and adventures in his life, held onto his father’s letters and was persuaded to pick some, publish them and provide a wry and repentant commentary on these relics of a faded age.
As personal as the book felt to me though, something that all great books feel, Dear Lupin was hugely successful. Which is why Michael Simkins has adapted it for the stage and – USP alert – ‘real-life’ father and son James and Jack Fox are performing it. The book is unapologetically a vehicle for Roger’s bons mots. He was clearly a funny man, with an aptitude for a turn of phrase – he constructs similes like Evelyn Waugh’s just swallowed The Big Sleep.
What is beautiful about the book though, Dad, is its purpose: to conjure an absent presence. To bring his father back to life. Of course on stage Roger is necessarily, well, a present presence. He’s standing right there. That’s not to the detriment of James Fox who, with a hat or a jacket plucked from the many desks, drawers and cabinets on stage, takes on all the intervening parts: an army officer, a prostitute and, most brilliantly, Field Marshal Montgomery. He’s clearly having fun putting on silly hats and doing funny voices, and his Prince Charles vowels bring Roger Mortimer alive.
Jack on the other hand, though earnest and endearing in the mixture of affection and respect he (now) has for his dad, acts as if each line he delivers and movement he makes is very well remembered but almost entirely without conviction or passion. And his performance gives no hint of the drug-addicted, alcoholic past. Still, he’s very sweet and that’s almost more important since it’s a show so deeply about love and affection.
Simkins’ adaptation can’t quite settle into a rhythm that suits the stage. It’s gentle to the point of torpor. It’s too confined by the epistolary book, the long, carefully wrought ramblings of Roger and his son’s contextualisation. There’s no real structure, it has to force a narrative, it relies on gimmick which doesn’t add a huge amount but I think you’d really like it.
Roger’s world is all but gone now, and the liberal in me says it’s a good thing. The last of the great English eccentrics, a post-colonial world of gentry. Fox Sr wears burgundy cords and a tweed jacket. Roger speaks of his fondness for kedgeree. But his advice is as useful as ever, and not just for Charlie. Maybe for everyone. Certainly, it seems, it’s advice that you’ve followed in your life: ‘try and have a good time without making a fool or a shit of yourself.’ You’ve done pretty well in those terms, Dad. I’ve sailed close to both fool and shit, but I hope I’ve always brought myself back from the brink.
The book feels like it’s mine. The play didn’t, it couldn’t. It’s something to see with friends and family. It’s in a big West End theatre. But the book is still by my bed, ready to dip into and inextricable from the thought of you.