“I was made to read it at school,” said a man in the bar afterwards. “Well,” snapped his wife “now you’ve had it read to you by three actors.”
In a way, she’s right: one of the chaps plays a sort of general factotum but the staging of Travels With My Aunt depends on the interplay of the three performers who share the narrative of both dull dahlia-growing bank manager Henry Pulling and his louche Aunt Augusta, who has not seen him since his christening but materialises at his mother’s funeral dripping in fox furs and caustic epigrams and impelling him on a series of journeys of dubious motive from the Orient Express to Paraguay.
Although set beautifully in a railway station which could double for Brief Encounter, director Christopher Luscombe hasn’t tampered with Giles Havergal’s original Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre production, which neatly trimmed the Graham Greene novel and thankfully disregarded the bizarre 1972 George Cukor movie in which Maggie Smith, then aged 37, played the ‘elderly’ aunt.
Thinking how much better she’d do it now in her glorious Downton dotage, you may be initially disappointed that Aunt is impersonated only by the three men; but as it’s principally by the wonderful Jonathan Hyde – so impressive as Lionel Logue in The King’s Speech – clutching imaginary pearls and with a chicken-throated delivery Dame Edith Evans would have envied, it brings the character fully and hilariously to life.
The glory of the piece is how Aunt Augusta is in her formidable stature apparently a creation of Wodehouse or Wilde, but that her moral values are so startlingly modern from her passionate affair with Sierra Leonean manservant Wordsworth, to the fact she dabbles so freely in drugs trafficking, money laundering or high-voltage politics. As she remarks admiringly of some South American banana republic, “Only recently they assassinated their prime minister: we dream of it, but they act”.
In the week of the State Opening of Parliament, that got a particularly good laugh.
Travels With My Aunt continues at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 29 June with tickets from £27.50 to £39. Box office 020 7378 1713 or tickets online at the Menier website. JohnnyFox paid for tickets to this show.