Travels With My Aunt
Based on the novel by Graham Greene
Book by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman
Music by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe
Directed by Christopher Luscombe
Designer Colin Falconer
Choreographer Ewan Jones
Orchestrator Nicholas Sklibeck
Musical Director (and pianist) Mark Aspinall
Minerva Theatre, Chichester
Thursday 28th April 2016 matinee
Patricia Hodge – Aunt Augusta
Steven Pacey – Henry Pulling
Haley Flaherty – Tooley
Hugh Maynard – Wordsworth
Jonathan Dryden-Taylor – Sparrow & O’Toole
Sebastian Torkia – Mario & Chief of Police
Jack Wilcox – Young Visconti
Jack Chissick – Visconti & Hakim
Stephanie Bon, Nicholas Duncan, Michael Duke, Sarah Earnshaw, Rachel Grundy, Abiola Ogunbiyi
Chichester has done so well with its revivals of Gypsy and Mack and Mabel that it has branched out with an original, a new musical. Graham Greene’s 1969 story Travels With My Aunt has already been a film, and the play version by Creative Cow (with a cast of four) has been touring as this starts … and fairly close to Chichester at Winchester, Salisbury, and Poole. The musical is directed by Christopher Luscombe, due to return to Chichester in the autumn with the RSC productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost / Love’s Labour’s Won. Patricia Hodge follows Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball at Chichester, and steps into the lead role of Aunt Augusta, a name which was Graham Greene’s little jest on Lady Bracknell (aka Aunt Augusta) from The Importance of Being Earnest. This Aunt Augusta is diametrically opposite Wilde’s Aunt Augusta. Steven Pacey is Henry Pulling – they work well together and were both in Relative Values at Bath in 2013.
A thrust floor level stage with the audience looking down from three sides is an unusually intimate venue for a full musical. The set theme is railway stations with a waiting room area that moves forward and back, with the band high up stage right in a signal box. That pretty much does it, but the direction is fast and fluent, with a few chairs, tables and benches forming a church, a taxi, a fast car, ships, customs areas, stations, restaurants, a hotel suite, a prison cell (the ticket office), a garden with dahlias – all with the minimum of fuss and done rapidly. A triumph of stage management with every member of the cast and ensemble involved with shifting stuff.
Henry Pulling (Steven Pacey) and Aunt Augusta (Patricia Hodge)
Aunt Augusta meets Henry Pulling (Steven Pacey) a bank manager on early retirement at Henry’s mum’s funeral. She introduces herself as his aunt, and introduces her “assistant” Wordsworth (he does what “she needs”). He’s a strapping lad from Sierra Leone with a sideline in dope-dealing. He manages to avoid a bust by mixing marijuana with Henry’s mum’s ashes (yes, I read the Keith Richard urban legend about snorting his dad’s ashes too). Aunt Augusta is a life force and soon whisks Henry away on a series of adventures, first to Paris, then Milan, then via the Orient Express to Istanbul. On the way they meet Tooley, an American hippy chick, played by Haley Flaherty. Aunt Augusta wants Henry to get off with her, and they enjoy a spliff in the compartment, which it turns out was made from dope sold to her by Wordsworth. Their mission is to find Aunt Augusta’s old lover, Visconti. She has to save his life by paying a ransom. In Milan, they meet his son, who has a lovely operatic voice.
On the train Henry meets Tooley (Haley Flaherty)
The second half opens with Henry back among his prize dahlias in London, but he is soon whisked off to meet Aunt Augusta in Buenos Aeries, then onto a river boat to Asuncion, Paraguay to find Visconti, a hunted “war criminal.” There is one long past narration with Augusta telling the story of her and Visconti (with dancers acting out the characters back before the war.) Finally everyone meets up in Paraguay. Revelations tumble over each other. No plot spoilers.
L to R: Paraguay. Tooley, Henry, Wordsworth (Hugh Maynard) and Augusta at gunpoint
The performances are effortless, with Patricia Hodge shining in acting, singing and dancing, and my goodness, she is enviably fit, trim, in excellent voice and spritely … and she’s older than me. Steven Pacey opens and closes and narrates, and is a fine singer and looks perfect as Henry. Great ensemble, both at dance and singing.
It is a musical. At the start with wailing Turkish sounds to set Istanbul, I thought it was good, though I noticed the lack of an overture … important on a new musical to introduce melody lines. We agreed that the orchestration, always interesting and varied, was superior to the songs, though the sound was harsh and toppy at times. Too much of it melodically is ‘generic American musical’ in style. For me that was missed opportunity. One of the most memorable songs was Jig Jig, led by Wordsworth. and described in reviews as calypso. Exactly. Calypso is 1958 and Cy Grant on the nightly Tonight show. This is 1969, and ska, early reggae, or a bit of African sound would have been more exciting. Tooley’s song doesn’t sound 1969 folkie either, nor 1969 psych. Everything indeed sounded “generic musical” with not a touch of “1969” and another great missed opportunity was for tango for Buenos Aeries or Latin (or South American Indian) for Paraguay. There were chances for the sounds of 1969 (the orchestration tried to add a few) and the sounds of the countries they visited … though they did get Italian for Milan.
The lyrics carried a lot of story and humour. In Act One we see Henry about to submit to a Turkish custom’s officer rubber glove. Later he complains to Augusta:
While you’ve flitted and you’ve flirted
I’ve had a rubber glove inserted …
There’s a lot like that. The songs are all well sung, good choruses, very good lines, and they will appeal to those who like the genre. I’d have been happier with more innovation melodically and stylistically, and rocking it up more. After all, 1969 was the era of Hair. Godspell was a couple of years away. This sounds a generation earlier throughout.
Aunt Augusta and Wordsworth
Hugh Maynard as Wordworth was the best natural singer in the cast, with a powerful unforced voice. He had an odd sculpted wig, as we realized when we saw him walking wigless past the restaurant when we were enjoying dinner after the show. We realised that his wig hairstyle with its weird parting had been modelled on Bobby Farrell of Boney M. That’s late 70s, not 1969, and a dreadful model. Boney M were a group based on three girl singers, and Bobby Farrell was a running joke … an imported male dancer who stood in the middle dancing, and grunted just one word or two in the entire song. He was only there because he could dance, and no one, but no one, imitated his fashion sense and certainly not his hair. 1969? Jimi Hendrix. Sly Stone. It was a shame, as Maynard is a great dancer with a good physique. I’d have gone for Sly Stone, fuzzball hair, fringed jacket and flares, dark glasses. That brings us to the costumes, which were simply wrong. A bit of paisley patterned nylon does not make a costume 1969. Aunt Augusta had flattering and elegant dresses, but they were early 60s or late 50s in style. Wordsworth’s costume was dull, 70s, and a missed chance.The only one who looked 1969 was Tooley the hippy, and that was cartoon hippy too.
Wordsworth / Bobby Farrell
A note on the script. Is it Cowen and Lipman’s book, or Graham Greene’s text? I don’t know, but Wordsworth was given lines reminiscent of Man Friday in a bad 1950s pantomime version of Robinson Crusoe. I squirmed for the actor having to deliver them. Wordsworth is allegedly from Sierra Leone, an officially English-speaking country. It didn’t sound West African at all. I knew Sierra Leone students at university who spoke standard English with a light African inflection. Wordsworth’s dialogue was embarrassingly-badly written by someone. I hesitate to bandy around the vastly over-used word ‘racist’ but that’s how Wordworth’s dialogue sounded to me. Minstrel show. Step ‘n’ Fetchit. It was compounded in attitude by the song In The Eyes of Italian Men. If they were Greene’s lines they should have been updated, but I once used a Graham Greene extract from Dr Fischer of Geneva in an ELT book. When we did an American edition, a New York editor decided she should “correct” Greene’s language. (She was totally wrong). I remember pointing to the original permission letter which stated that no changes whatsoever could be made.
How will it do? I don’t think it will follow recent Chichester musicals into the West End. The musical style is disappointing and unoriginal, and it doesn’t have the international 1969 flavours we had expected. It’s lively enough, direction is fluid and first rate, the performances certainly deserve it, but the book needs a total rewrite on all Wordsworth’s lines, and costumes would need changing, and an overture should be added. But if it does make it, it won’t be on a thrust stage nor as intimate. So in spite of those faults, grab the chance now.
RELATED REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG:
Relative Values, Bath Theatre Royal, 2013