Chichester Theatre’s Festival 2016 opened last night with the press night of Graham Greene’s whimsical comedy Travels with My Aunt.
This is an entirely new production. The story is the same but some bright sparks – that would be playwrights Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman – thought that it could be improved with the addition of music, songs and dance routines. And, do you know, they may be right.
George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have come up with more than 20 numbers, which is excessive for any musical, but their playfulness and retro style beautifully complement this outlandish and improbable story about a mother and son embarking on an unlikely voyage of discovery.
Patricia Hodge is miscast as the bohemian Aunt Augusta who turns up at her sister’s funeral, hijacks the event, and introduces herself to the grieving son, the priggish, dull as dishwater, former bank manager, Henry (Steven Pacey).
Henry now spends his time talking to his dahlias and pottering around his garden. His life is grey, ordinary, and without incident.
But all this changes when Augusta’s West African lover, Wordsworth (Hugh Maynard), hides drugs in Henry’s mother’s urn, and the aunt’s errant, long-term love, a suspected Nazi war criminal and sympathiser, is held to ransom.
Henry finds himself being forced to accompany Augusta on a wild journey through Europe, Turkey, Central and South America to rescue the old rogue and, in the process, finds himself.
It’s totally daft but thoroughly enjoyable. Ewan Jones’ stylish choreography is wonderfully authentic for a story that is set in 1969. The ensemble wiggle about like they’re dancing The Watusi or The Mashed Potato.
The girls, all bouffants and false eyelashes, are dressed in their groovy, happening psychedelic minis and the boys in their flower-power shirts. All very hip and right-on.
But there’s Henry in his wool three piece suit and tie. It takes the entire play for him to relax and change into something (slightly) more comfortable. Meanwhile Hodge looks about as bohemian as Margaret Thatcher.
Colin Falconer’s creative set replicates a rail station, with a movable waiting room doubling as a bar and the signal box used to house the band. The rest of it comprises of a couple of benches and a few railings which are ingeniously used throughout.
There’s not much space in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre but it hasn’t stopped director Christopher Luscombe staging a vibrant and witty musical that takes the audience on a whistle-stop journey from London to Paris, Milan, Istanbul and Asunción via train and ferry.
Pacey has it pegged as the grouchy, colourless and banal Henry, who gets hiccups when under stress, although he does admit brightly, over his mother’s coffin: “Funerals have always excited me. I’ve been looking forward to cremating her for days!”.
The reluctant traveller perks up a bit when offered a joint to smoke by a pregnant young hippy called Tooley (Haley Flaherty) who, astonishingly, then falls for the square even though he’s old enough to be her father.
Interestingly, Luscombe has chosen not to let anyone in the production actually smoke (herbal or otherwise) – and there are a lot of cigarettes bandied about – which looks rather odd (but a relief to those of us who cough and splutter when anyone does light up).
Both Pacey and Hodge make a fine stab at their songs though neither are powerful vocalists.
When we do get to finally meet Augusta’s kidnapped lover “Mr Visconti” he turns out to be a bit of a disappointment. “Good god! He’s short, fat and bald!” exclaims Henry. Yes, actor Jack Chissick is rather diminutive but he’s a lovely mover on the dance floor.
The songs are jolly and charming though none really stand out. Drewe’s lyrics are comical. In the Act One finale, Used For The Very Last Time, a humiliated Henry rages at his aunt: “While You have flitted and flirted I have had rubber gloves inserted!” A painful reminder of his journey through customs.
Jig Jig sees the female dancers shake their booty in barely there minis while Hodge’s manipulative, cold, unemotional and deceitful Aunt Augusta amuses with Life’s Too Short (for long funerals).
Augusta wants to live a life full of magical memories, and there’s no doubt that Travels with My Aunt is memorably magical, but it’s a big ask to believe that Patricia Hodge’s Aunt was a former prostitute. Bohemian, as Graham Greene described the old dear, the immaculately attired Ms Hodge is not.
Travels with My Aunt runs in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre until June 4.
Travels with My Aunt
This new musical version of Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt, in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre, is charming, whimsical and stylish.