Shrapnels got to play last month. Billie Piper's in-laws, as they're basically being marketed, play the authors of the book Dear Lupin, adapted for the stage by Michael Simkins: Roger Mortimer (James Fox) was a popular racing journalist and commentator, raised in a family with a butler, and though not quite retaining that level of wealth he maintained an upper-middle class respectability all his life. Not so his youngest son Charles (Jack Fox,) nicknamed Lupin - not after a flower or a werewolf but after the similarly wayward son in The Diary of a Nobody. Expelled from Eton, Lupin travels the world, unfortunately not so much picking up culture as he does addictions and a criminal record.
Roger regularly writes letters to Lupin, who doesn't always keep him entirely in the loop about how badly things are going for him, and who is often encouraged by his father's words to make an effort at improvement.
After Roger's death, Charles collected the letters - all of which he'd kept - and published them in a book as an alternative to the autobiography his father had always refused to write. Although if Simkins' adaptation is anything to go by it remains the son's life story rather than the father's, the letters only providing a flavour of Roger's dry and understated wit. The stage version sees him rather grudgingly accept, from beyond the grave, his son's request that he act out the story with him.
Dear Lupin is not an obvious match for the West End, and as soon as it was announced it looked a lot like a placeholder to stop the Apollo from going dark in August. It certainly doesn't seem to be drawing much of an audience yet, although those there did seem to be enjoying its gentle humour more than I did, with only one joke even raising a smile from me*.
And gentle really is the word, Philip Franks' production somehow managing to skip over the darkness of Lupin's life being dominated by alcohol and heroin; it's a bit unclear whether he ever told his father he was gay (he seems to mention beautiful boys in his letters back so maybe he did) but he certainly didn't tell him he was HIV-positive. Jack Fox is pretty but his performance is very stilted, his voice monotonous, which is a problem as much of the play consists of his narration. His father at least gets a bit more variety as he also plays a number of comic supporting roles, from Lupin's superiors in the army to a wide-boy antiques dealer he once worked for. But as his warmth towards his son seems to depend on knowing as little as possible about what's actually going on - and going wrong - with him, Dear Lupin essentially reinforces an image of over-privileged, emotionally distant posh people. It doesn't help the audience care, and the dry comic observations aren't enough to salvage it.
Dear Lupin by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer, adapted by Michael Simkins, is booking until the 19th of September at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue.
Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes including interval.
*to give you an idea of the level, this is the show's actual best joke:
Sergeant: "I didn't see you in camouflage training today, Private Mortimer."
Charles: "Thank you, sir."