Writer: Graham Greene
Adapter: Giles Havergal
Director: Phillip Breen
Reviewer: Harriet Brace
When a story starts with a funeral it’s usually fair to assume the tale will end as it began – in tragedy. And often with more than a small dose of doom and gloom along the way. Not so Travels with My Aunt.
Instead the melancholy affair introduces a whirlwind of pot-smoking, free-loving, law-bending adventure and one of literature’s greats – the titular Aunt Augusta.
Adapted from the well-known novel by Graham Greene, the play follows retired bank manager Henry Pulling, whose life’s ambition doesn’t extend far beyond his own patch of suburban England. Content enough to spend his days growing dahlias – probably in very straight lines – Henry finds himself thrust towards expanded horizons by an encounter with his estranged Aunt at his mother’s funeral. As the two, thrown together, travel across the continent and eventually to South America, Henry finds himself embroiled in life outside the law – and not necessarily hating it.
Full of reckless frenzy from start to finish, Giles Havergal’s adaptation for the stage has its own legacy of rebellion that adds another layer of intrigue to the tale. First staged at the Citz in 1989 it was selected, in part, because the theatre was broke after a budget-busting production of Hamlet. Travels with My Aunt required minimal set and costume, and just four actors.
It was also an early part of the Citz’s people’s revolution – one that threw open its doors to diverse audiences and saw the introduction of open access initiatives that continue to this day, such as 50p tickets.
With Phillip Breen at the helm, this reincarnation stays faithful to Citz legend Havergal’s original adaptation – and far from being tired, it feels apt. True to the theatre’s pioneering spirit it’s also a real challenge for its actors, each of whom takes on the role not just of Henry himself but also multiple other characters of different genders, nationalities, financial means – and even species.
Perhaps that’s why Travels with My Aunt has attracted such a stellar cast of four. Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Joshua Richards has the unenviable task of ‘going native’ with a plethora of colourful characters from across the globe – from a dictatorial Turkish military commander to a migrant from Sierra Leone who’s part of a smuggling plot. Meanwhile Tony Cownie, last seen at the Citz in The Libertine three years since, is a CIA operative, a wanderlusting teenager and a lovesick spinster self-exiled to South Africa.
Ian Redford has his work cut out portraying the inimitable Aunt Augusta, and does so with aplomb – his mannerisms equally as expressive as his speech and instantly recognisable as the anti-matriarch, even in quick succession to a stint as Henry. While former Citizens Actor Intern, Ewan Somers, can boast an extra feather in his (bowler) hat as Wolf – a dog – and steals one of the standout scenes of the show with a cackle-inducing sequence that starts in a car and ends up under a tank.
Mark Bailey’s set design meanwhile reflects the raw, uncluttered quality of the acting. The minimal set consists of multiple props placed seemingly at random yet moved, avoided, shared and slammed in sequences so meticulously choreographed that they seem effortless.
The play cleverly takes the audience from country to country through quick additions to costume and adjustments to light, using the creative team’s talent to create subtle shifts in atmosphere. A particularly poignant moment in an otherwise fast-paced stage plot sees set chairs turned upside-down and at angles to represent a graveyard, the stones and caskets creepily crooked among the upright actors interacting among them.
Despite having been staged all over the world, Travels with My Aunt still feels like a fresh piece of theatre. Perhaps that’s ironic, given adapter Havergal’s penchant for “disregarding the heritage”, but Phillip Breen’s fidelity to the play’s original staging only enhances its appeal.
This little piece of people’s history retains its eccentric, enigmatic and unconventional charm, and is a joy to finally have back home at the Citz.
Runs until 20 May 2017 | Image: Pete Le May