Travels With My Aunt continues at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester until 4 June.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
For the first of its musicals this season, Chichester Festival Theatre has looked to the combined and proven talents of composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe, along with book writers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman. It was this quartet who were responsible for bringing Betty Blue Eyes to the stage – a musical adaptation of the film A Private Function.
Their latest offering is an adaptation of Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt –– a whimsical and episodic novel that reads more like a series of short stories stitched together. The stage version follows suit as it unfolds the adventures of Henry Pulling, a recently retired, conventional bank manager and his newly discovered aunt, Augusta.
Unlike Wilde’s Augusta – the ultra conservative Lady Bracknell – this lady is a life force with a scandalous and rebellious past who sweeps her nephew up on a series of journeys to rescue her one true love. For Pulling, it is also a journey of self discovery and liberation.
The musical becomes a whistle-stop tour of exotic locations within which the mini stories are enacted. Its light breezy sketch-like style brings to mind the musical revues of the 1960s – frothy meringues rather than a hearty meal. However, Christopher Luscombe’s direction and the cast give the piece charm and, above all, provide an evening of entertaining fantasy.
Colin Falconer has designed a clever set that adapts to the various railway stations and airports that the pair pass through in Paris, Milan, Istanbul, Argentina and Paraguay. The scene transitions for the ever-changing locations and hotel rooms, as well as the Orient Express, are executed swiftly and with stylish precision. A railway signal box, perched above the stage, serves to house the orchestra under the direction of Mark Aspinall.
Stiles and Drewe’s songs are a mixed bag – some fade quickly from the mind, while others excite and are highly entertaining. Several numbers are reflective and evolve out of spoken rather than sung lyrics. There is a strong song that closes the Act I – ‘Used For the Very Last Time’ – that has echoes of Noel Coward addressing Mrs Worthington.
It falls to Hugh Maynard, as the aunt’s young lover, to deliver a trio of standout numbers, ‘Keep Moving’, ‘Jig Jig’ and ‘She Puts the Living in Life’. Ewan Jones has devised some energetic choreography which is reflected best during ‘In the Eyes of Italian Men’.
Steven Pacey is spot on as Pulling – blossoming from a spinsterish existence into a rebellious one that embraces love for the first time. The object of this late awakening is Haley Flaherty’s Tooley – a true free spirit of the 1960s – who gets to tug at the heartstrings when she sings the moving ballad ‘A Feeling I Call Home’.
As the eccentric Aunt, Patricia Hodge delights but looks too young and glamorous to be playing a 75 year old. The shock value of the old lady’s lifestyle revelations is lost when pronounced by the enchanting Hodge. It would also help if her costumes were not so stylish but a little Bohemian.
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Travels With My Aunt at Chichester Festival Theatre – exclusive images