Dir. Phillip Breen, Citizens Theatre, 3-20 May
Although Travels With My Aunt might be one of Graham Greene’s lesser-known novels, the tale – which follows retired bank manager Henry Pulling as he joins his elderly Aunt Augusta on a string of extravagant adventures – has certainly proved successful in its theatrical incarnation. Adapted by Giles Havergal, the play was first showcased at the Citizens’ Theatre in 1989 and went on to scoop a coveted Olivier Award.
Beginning with a funeral and taking in the revelation of a murky family secret, a trip on the Orient Express and some shady dealings in South America, it’s a play with considerable breadth. Arguably, a real challenge to accomplish in the limited medium of theatre. But it’s not hard to see why Travels With My Aunt has proved to be such a crowd-pleaser: it’s simple, feel-good and sparklingly pleasant, with enough theatrical prowess to elevate a fairly disjointed story. Four actors – all dressed in austere three-piece suits – take on a disparate and demanding cast of characters, each continually shifting their roles with precision and ease. It is remarkable to see how the actors share the role of Henry – each adding their own flair to the part. It is impressive how the dizzying transitions manage to appear so effortlessly natural. Especially Ian Redford is a real treat to watch; his portrayal of the wonderfully eccentric Aunt Augusta is immediately convincing, despite all outward evidence to the contrary.
The story is a fundamentally appealing one: boring middle-aged man suddenly finds an appetite for life with a capital L. But with all the darker, criminal elements at play, it’s worth considering whether some more serious reflections might have balanced out all the light-hearted frivolity that Travels With My Aunt does so well. Add to the mixture a slightly uncomfortable portrayal of Augusta’s lover, the African-born Wordsworth, and it seems that more could have been accomplished to update the play to a more modern outlook.