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The Past Is a Tattooed Sailor review at Old Red Lion Theatre, London – ‘exudes bittersweet charm’

Scene from The Past Is a Tattooed Sailor. Photo: Pamela Raith Scene from The Past Is a Tattooed Sailor. Photo: Pamela Raith
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Apparently an inspiration for golden boys Cedric (Love in a Cold Climate) and Sebastian Flyte (Brideshead Revisited), Stephen Tennant was a beautiful muse and dilettante of the inter-war years. By the time his great-nephew Simon Blow knew him in the 1980s, however, he was more of a cross between Norma Desmond and Mr Toad, with a touch of Auntie Mame.

Blow’s autobiographical debut play The Past Is a Tattooed Sailor could easily have been a vanity project, and enjoyment is likely to depend on one’s tolerance of all things fey. But in spite of its meandering tendencies, it exudes a considerable amount of bittersweet charm.

The story charts the coming of age of little orphan Joshua (endearingly played by Jojo Macari), a survivor of a miserable childhood who develops a loving relationship with his pragmatic builder boyfriend Damien (the excellent Denholm Spurr), whose longing for family results in an ‘et in Arcadia ego’ of sorts.

Uncle Napier, a creature of immense vanity who identifies as “mercurial” rather than tyrannical, is portrayed in an engaging study of delusion by Bernard O’Sullivan. A life-long spoiled child who barks orders from his chaise longue and whose bon mots are lifted from wittier people, he isn’t a complete monster in the light of all the factors that made him the way he is.

Jeffrey Mayhew directs with sensitivity, embracing the fanciful nature of Blow’s storytelling. Most impressively, he manages to make the concept of a house filled with ghosts who drift around in a matter-of-fact manner seem quite natural.

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Whimsical, engagingly performed autobiographical exploration of the dark side of bohemianism