“People who like quotations love meaningless generalisations”
There’s a strange disconnect at the heart of Travels with my Aunt which means it never really ignites the comic potential it possesses. Giles Havergal’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1969 novel sees four actors cover a multitude of characters and a globe-trotting range of locations in a free-wheeling narrative which commences with retired bank manager Henry Pulling being reunited with his long-lost Aunt Augusta at his mother’s funeral. But the adventures that follow have a dated feel to them with a distinctly not-quite-post-colonial flavour and the presentational style also has a measured quality which only intermittently embraces the carefree spirit of the story.
There’s fun to be had though, as Henry falls deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole opened by his aunt and they ricochet from the depths of suburbia to Turkey, Paraguay and more and he gradually becomes more accustomed to the new excitements of his life, which had previously been limited to growing dahlias in his back garden. The actors share the roles as well as sharing them out so Greene’s richly evocative writing is constantly changing mouthpiece as all of them take turns in playing Henry, as well as the colourful cast of characters that pop up along the journey.
David Bamber just about wins on points as the most compelling version of Henry but also brings a lightness to a range of female characters and Gregory Gudgeon demonstrates huge variety and versatility covering a multitude of tiny parts, the postman being one of the wryly funniest. But in among the turns are slightly more questionable decisions. Jonathan Hyde’s Aunt Augusta is undoubtedly amusing but his style of female impersonation feels something of an anachronism in this day and age and Iain Mitchell has to tread a slightly dubious line as her Sierra Leonean manservant and lover Wordsworth.
Christopher Luscombe’s revival certainly oozes quality, not least in Colin Falconer’s richly detailed set design with its railway destination board which effectively locates the fast-moving action, and the experienced cast who display their skills with panache despite initially looking like a row of blandly grey motor traders insurance salesmen. But it rarely makes an effective case for this being a play worthy of such attention. It is old-fashioned due to its very nature but the problem is it feels old-fashioned too – its antiquated attitudes, the construction that loses its comic spark at the expense of predictable twists, an overall atmosphere of dated quaintness albeit strongly performed.