Writer: Graham Greene
Adaptor: Giles Havergal
Director: Amanda Knott
Reviewer: Lucy Corley
Purse-lipped, anxiously friendly and awkward-but-trying-to-hide-it, Henry Pulling is content to retire from his banking career at 50-something and pursue his interest in dahlias when his elderly mother passes away. His aunt Augusta has other ideas. He reluctantly befriends her at his mother’s funeral and, within two days, the police are at his door and he is on the road to Istanbul with his indomitable aunt.
Creative Cow put a unique spin on this jovial, energetic tale, with four principle actors playing all the parts and, often, the same part at once. Richard Earl, David Partridge, Katherine Senior and Devon’s own Jack Hulland are dressed identically as Henry in dapper suits and bowler hats, swigging drinks in sync and taking turns to narrate Henry’s story and play all the other characters.
Travels With My Aunt is a fantastic showcase for ensemble acting: the cast is uniformly convincing as the main characters, regardless of their ages (ranging, at a guess, from 35 to 65) or genders. Playing a host of minor roles, they often have just minutes to create a memorable and comic character. They are aided in this by Matt Early’s excellent sound design – well-chosen musical themes convey different countries and identify characters, helping to give this production its quirky feel.
While arguably the show misses a rare opportunity for a female actor over 50 to play a sassy, dynamic leading role, the four actors’ portrayal of Aunt Augusta is what gives the production its spark. She is camp, posh, wild and impossible not to love – the sort of character who would hobnob with the royal family and be mates with drug smugglers (more on that later).
The only physical presence we see of this woman with a wonderfully dodgy past, is a pair of pink-framed spectacles that each actor has in his/her pocket and can whip out at a moment’s notice to become Augusta. She is created through a well-honed set mannerisms, voice and swagger that each of the four cast members replicates with a precision that lets her dominate the stage, regardless of which of them is playing her.
It is unclear why, in a show that foregrounds the shape-shifting potential of performance, a London bar was chosen from the story’s many locations for the oddly naturalistic set design. Moreover, while entertaining, the first half drags on a bit, perhaps because the play is an adaptation from Graham Greene’s novel so the plot is fairly complex. Many characters have to be introduced in preparation for narrative pay-offs in the second half, which has a more satisfying pace.
At occasional moments too, the production’s farcical undertones – there are one or two atrocious accents and a touch of ham acting – step on the toes of what is a pretty great (and hilarious) story. This is only frustrating, however, because the show is much more engaging and emotionally complex than a farce. As Henry becomes increasingly involved with some of the shady characters in his aunt’s world, the production touches gently on questions of morality and what it means to love. Eccentric, funny and endearing, Travels With My Aunt is well worth a visit.
Runs until Saturday 14 May 2016 as part of a national tour | Image:Creative Cow