Letters from a lost age

roger and charlie mortimer

James Fox as Roger Mortimer and Jack Fox as his son, Charlie

Dear Lupin

Malvern Theatres

****

ROGER Mortimer’s relationship with his wayward son Charlie through his letters marks not only an affectionate bond between father and son but also perhaps the end of a gentler, more civilised age.

It was the final throes of newspapers as a refuge for eccentrics, unfettered journalism and good writing before the humourless march of accountants and their worship of profit, and it was the last days of the vanishing art of letter writing – younger readers might wish to Google snail mail before continuing.

Yet it is through Mortimer’s witty, at times gloriously funny, at times sad, letters, more than 150 of them, over a quarter of a century that we glimpse that unswerving tie between father and son.

Roger, a former Coldstream Guards’ major, an ex PoW, and for 30 years racing correspondent of the Sunday Times, died in 1991, aged 82, which could have been the end of the story, but Charlie, with a history of drug and alcohol abuse, a diagnosis of HIV, and a chaotic lifestyle taking him around the world, had nevertheless, somehow through all that, saved all his father’s letters.

After encouragement from friends who had been regaled by extracts, they were published in 2012 as Charlie’s personal tribute to his father, To his surprise the book became a best seller and has now been adapted into a touching, affectionate and at time hilarious play by Michael Simkins.

The play is given added poignancy by the casting of father and son James and Jack Fox in the lead roles of Roger and Charlie.

The letters are a wonderful mix of news from home about the eccentricities of his wife, Cynthia, nicknamed Nidnod, along with advice and the expression of emotions ranging through despair, alarm, restraint and finally resignation at the antics of his son.

Above all though they are about the affection and love of a father for a son, no matter how wayward his offspring becomes.

Charlie was expelled from Eton after sneaking off with a friend on an unsuccessful visit to a prostitute in Soho. He was saved only because the also expelled friend’s Godfather was Viscount Montgomery of Alamein who pleaded, or perhaps more accurately ordered, that they should stay – although it was decided it might be best for all concerned if Charlie was to leave, with a cleandrill sergant and Charlie record, at the end of term.

Charlie’s history of scrapes at Eton earned him the nickname Lupin from his father, a reference to Charles Pooter’s wayward son Lupin in George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody.

With James Fox here playing the drill sergeant Charlie joined his father's old regiment, the Coldstream Guards only to quit as he was accepted for officer training

The two hander sees Fox the elder as Roger playing a variety of extra roles with little more than a change of hat and accent from Montgomery to a sergeant and a colonel in the Coldstream Guards, a job centre clerk, antiques baron, an auctioneer and anyone else to bring added life to yet another episode in the life of Lupin as he works his way through drink, drugs and jobs in all corners of the world.

Adrian Linford’s set is a splendid jumble of old furniture, like a stately home lumber room, dominated by Mortimer’s refuge of a desk where he writes his racing articles and letters.

It also serves as the props table as both Foxes delve into boxes, drawers and cupboards to emerge with a hat, a jacket, a meal, drink, steering wheel or whatever to enact an event in Lupin’s disordered life.

It all helps to create a breakneck pace, directed with some style by Philip Franks, as more than 25 years is crammed into two hours, including interval.

Yet the pace drops to a crawl in what is a moving end. Mortimer senior, suffering dementia and that most fatal and debilitating of conditions, old age, is dying – his last wish to die overlooking the nudist beach at Brighton sadly unfulfilled – while Mortimer junior, unbeknown to Roger suffering from HIV and facing death himself, clings on to their special bond through death and beyond through the letters.

It is a relationship perhaps only fathers and sons can understand.

As a play it is blessed with Mortimer’s wonderful turns of phrase, guests who are ‘unlikely to be members of the local temperance league’ or who had their ‘noggin in the gin bucket’.

When Charlie, liver shot, books himself into rehab Roger, visiting him, asks: “What exactly are you here for?” Charlie replies that he has a bit of a drink and drug problem to which his father enquires: “Any chance of getting your mother in?”

There is the wonderful description of the dog show, of Roger’s instructions for a funeral – ‘no memorial service, just a quick fry-up’ – Cynthia’s ‘endeavouring to live on a purely liquid diet with unfortunate results’, and on and on in a chronicle of life in the racing world of Newbury, the going ons at home and behind it all their affectionate relationship.

Fox senior and junior give the letters and book life in a funny, sad, wonderful portrayal of a father son relationship, so much so that by the inevitable end the pair have created characters you have taken to heart, that you care about so their sadness is your sadness.

You will laugh, you will cry, but most of all you will enjoy and delight in the world of  Roger and Lupin. To 16-05-15

Roger Clarke

11-05-15

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