Writer: Neal Foster adapted from the book by David Walliams
Director: Neal Foster
Reviewer: Niki Craft
With David Walliams quickly climbing the ladder leading to the title of Britain’s most popular children’s author, it is no surprise that companies are flocking to work his books into theatrical productions. Having had staggering success with their first go at a Walliams adaption in Gangsta Granny, the Birmingham Stage Company decided to bow to the challenge of transforming Awful Auntie’s sombre tale from page to stage in the hopes they can repeat their previous achievements.
Stella Saxby lives in Saxby Hall with her mother and father, Lord and Lady Saxby, or at least she does until they both die in a tragic accident leaving Stella in a coma for months and her Awful Auntie the only soul around upon her waking to inform her of this sorry tale. Said Awful Auntie also happens to be frantically searching for the deeds of Saxby Hall, which have been cunningly hidden, knowing her only hope of gaining her brother’s fortune is for Stella to sign it over to her as Lord Saxby’s will clearly states the mansion should be sold to charity in the event of Stella’s death. Sounds complicated, right? Although probably not as complicated as getting the depth of a story that takes place in a single location and whose protagonist has an owl for a side-kick to project well on stage to an audience of under 12s…
By the end of act one, it almost feels as though Neal Foster is failing in his task to bring Awful Auntie to life. The pace is too slow at times, the acting – although perfectly pitched for its target audience in prose – just doesn’t quite do enough to convincingly build character and, with the exception of a beautifully thought-out garden puppetry scene, it doesn’t massively impress.
Redemption, however, comes thick and fast in act two with it immediately packing a mean punch and grabbing the wandering attentions of the audience. Bringing the comedy and humour you’d have expected act one to contain, the pace instantly quickens and the laughter soon follows as the race to the play’s dramatic ending begins. The puppetry efforts of Roberta Bellekom, in charge of Wagner the owl, now shine through enough to be noted and the company appear to have found a new sense of confidence in projecting their character’s traits upon us.
The impressive nature of the ever-changing set design is also properly realised in the second half of proceedings as scenes travel quickly from room to room, smoothly transforming around the actors before our eyes. We start to really feel like we are being transported around the manor house and character and setting finally intertwine to allow us some connection to the story.
As for the acting, it’s hard to pinpoint any of the cast members for notable performances, however, this isn’t necessarily bad. The five-strong company has such a strong rapport that it would be hard to imagine any other person in any one of their places. Even with the lacklustre first act, they manage to connect with one another from the first line and continue their efforts right up to the last, managing to appear as though they have always worked together.
All in all, Awful Auntie is an incredibly difficult production to easily and quickly sum up; it’s painstakingly slow to ignite, yet mightily explosive in finish and this reviewer is struggling to know which way to lean.
Is it worth a watch? I would definitely recommend you go and find out for yourself.
Runs until 24 February 2018 and on tour | Image: Mark Douet