The most conspicuous aspect of Giles Havergal’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1969 picaresque novel Travels With My Aunt is the absence of an aunt. Four middle-aged men dressed in matching suits and knitted waistcoats multi-task their way through Greene’s tale of coming-of-age in middle age.
Despite their skill, there’s a nagging feeling that the show is insinuating that not even the most skilled comic actress could be as funny as a man putting on a rasping falsetto, a notion that ought to be as antiquated as the idea of marriages between middle-aged Englishmen and the teenage daughters of tribal chiefs (though of course it could be argued that the casting of a 37-year-old Maggie Smith in the film deprived a real septuagenarian of her last hurrah).
Aunt Augusta is cut from the same cloth as Patrick Dennis’s Auntie Mame (herself the subject of a play and also a musical), an ‘Unforgettable Character’ who transforms her protégé’s staid existence into a whirlwind of adventures and glamour, with plenty of scrapes that are always evaded at the last minute. Henry Pulling is a contentedly asexual retired bank manager in his fifties with an entirely blameless life of cultivating dahlias and re-reading the works of Sir Walter Scott who rather looks forward to his mother’s cremation as a break from routine. In sweeps his risqué aunt who hasn’t seen him since his christening, taking the orphan under wing, introducing him to her disreputable friends and illicit activities in exotic locales – the idea of a day out in Brighton (as dangerous as Istanbul or Buenos Aires in Greeneland) is met with contempt.
After a first half that was never on a high, things dip further in the tiresome second act set in Ascencion, Paraguay, in which Aunt Augusta reunites with the great love of her life (an Italian Nazi collaborator), coincidences abound and Henry has to decide whether he wishes to be a “tourist” in his aunt’s world or to join it wholeheartedly. As the people Aunt Augusta surrounds herself with are really quite loathsome, suburban respectability seems more attractive option.
David Bamber gives the most memorable performance as the baffled Henry; he’s surprisingly good at impersonating teenage girls, particularly a Pill-taking potsmoking American hippy, a reminder that this is set in the 1960s, not the 1930s (Colin Falconer’s detailed railway station set is certainly very Brief Encounter-ish).
Jonathan Hyde, who largely monopolises Aunt Augusta, gives an amusing turn as the subversive grande dame, but it’s a portrayal that’s a bit too prim and Lady Bracknell-ish for a woman who was sexually liberated and a drug user long before the Sixties started to swing.
With a script and staging that are more meandering than madcap, it’s old fashioned in a way that’s more wearying than endearing. It’s too compliant with the colonial attitudes to be effectively ironic (The Sierra Leonean lover and drug dealers is definitely problematic). As literary adaptations go, far more warmth and imagination was at work recently in the Arcola’s Moby Dick and the Rosemary Branch’s Jane Eyre on much more meagre budgets.