Travels with my Aunt, a New Musical
Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, based on the novel by Graham Greene, music by George Stiles, lyrics by Anthony Drewe
Chichester Festival Theatre
Minerva Theatre Chichester
The story is of Henry Pulling, a retired bank manager, content to spend his days tending his beloved Dahlias, until he meets Aunt Augusta for the first time and life will never be the same again. His first surprise, and a warning of what is to come, is meeting his aunt’s lover, a big black negro called Wordsworth.
This is one of my favourite books, and I’ll begin this review with what I didn’t care for. A jealous Wordsworth physically attacking Henry I thought was overdone. “You be telling me the whole truth, woman’’ with a suspicious glare I thought would have been so much funnier when she introduces her nephew, and having otherwise been true to the story so well I thought it a shame that they tidied up any loose ends to give a contrived "happy ending".
So—what did I like?—absolutely everything else!
Styles and Drewe have created an astounding number of songs, with lyrics not only relevant to the story but moving it along at quite a pace. “Keep Moving” is repeated more than once, and they do, from Henry’s beloved Dahlias to Paraguay, with multiple adventures along the way.
We are taken right into the middle of their travels in Istanbul, where the pair have been arrested and Henry forced to submit to a humiliating strip search with an intimidating security guard snapping on his rubber glove with alarming anticipation. Henry then addresses the audience taking us back to where it all began, at his mother’s funeral, where Patricia Hodge’s Aunt Augusta had taken over with “Life’s too Short”—and funerals too long!
Everyone in this production looks exactly as I had imagined they would, which is probably why any deviations are more noticeable. Haley Flaherty is spot-on as young hippy Tooley, happily smoking pot while worrying that she might be pregnant, worldly-wise and innocent at the same time, and Steven Pacey is the epitome of a retired bank manager, very sober and very correct, but able to rise to the occasion however much it might shock or surprise him.
We see a lot of Aunt Augusta’s somewhat nefarious life with “The Way I’ve Lived”, and “Jig Jig” but there are also “Magical Moments” and “In the Eyes of Italian Men” expressing her undying love for Mr Visconti who, when we finally see him, is not the man we had imagined.
The multiple venues are imaginatively created (Colin Falconer) by means of a sliding set and a ‘signal box’ which houses the orchestra, with other props whisked in and out by the fast-moving, and very versatile, ensemble, who have to switch from mourners, to flight attendants or even prostitutes in the blink of an eye, often while singing and dancing superbly.
Is Aunt Augusta’s very unconventional life style to be recommended? “Never presume that yours is the better morality” she tells Henry, and who are we to judge?
Whatever Greene was getting at, Travels with my Aunt makes one helluva good musical with the original wit and fun intact, and Christopher Luscombe keeps tight control while moving the travels relentlessly along. Perhaps not earth-shattering, but extremely enjoyable.
Reviewer: Sheila Connor