PLYMOUTH & TOURING
THEATRE ROYAL PLYMOUTH – 8 DECEMBER 2018
AWFUL AUNTIE by David Walliams, adapted by Neal Foster
RUNNING TIME 2 HOURS – 1 interval
Theatre Royal Plymouth Box Office – 01752 267222
REVIEW – CORMAC RICHARDS – 4 DECEMBER 2018
David Walliams has become one of the top-selling children’s authors in the country. His quirky stories have captured the imagination of a large young audience and his works have found a comfortable home on TV and now the stage.
It is difficult not to make some similarities between his work and that of Roald Dahl and even J.K. Rowling and this production seems to borrow ideas a lot. So, we have a vile female played by a man – as per the stage show of Dahl’s Matilda. An owl plays an important part – as per Harry Potter. Other comparisons can be made. But maybe it’s just coincidence.
I wonder with everything at the disposal of a stage designed why the audience is greeted by a crumpled sheet across two pieces of set. I know it is there to provide a screen for a projection, but it just gives a bad impression. When we get to see it, the set is good. 4 circular trucks forming rooms in a grand house and which revolve, continually changing the scenes without interruption. They are very cleverly designed, but virtually don’t stop turning in the second half.
Talking of halves, this is very much a game of two. The simple tale of how an orphaned girl is held captive by her aunt in the family home and is tortured to hand over the deeds of the property, is endearing and mildly disturbing in turns. Somehow seeing a 12yo girl (the actress is rather older) being subjected to electrocution is not high on my list of entertaining sights.
In setting up the story, the first half seems terribly pedestrian in what is, basically, a show for children. There is no climax as we reach the interval and it seemed to take the audience by surprise. It was a curiously uninvolving 45 minutes. The second, and longer, second half fairly bowls along at a rate of knots and eventually provides the entertainers the youngsters have been craving. So, we have slapstick, chases, plenty of references to pee and poo and a chance to cheer and boo – it is almost pantomime. There is almost a sense of relief that the show has found its feet.
With only 5 actors, one of whom is working a large owl puppet, there is a lot to do for them on the large stage – I just felt the show would be far better suited to somewhere more intimate. The actors, though, all do a sterling job. As the central character of Stella, Georgina Leonidas has the stage to herself quite a lot and does so well. Richard James as Aunt Alberta has a whale of a time – it’s a great part and he gives it everything. Ashley Cousins is quite perfect as Soot, the boy ghost who turns out to be more than just a nobody. His is a lovely, well voiced and rounded performance and he definitely wins the audience over. As a young performer, Harry Sutherland does a great job as the mad butler Gibbon and performs his various antics with great timing. As a puppet manipulator you have to remain virtually anonymous and Roberta Bellekom handles Wagner the owl with great sensitivity and skill – the puppet is magnificent I must say.
I have already mentioned the set design which was excellent and included a car and motorbike careering around the stage – maybe they do need a big stage! The lighting presented a problem which I hope will sort itself out during the run. Patchy and dark, it became a little irritating. The jaunty music by Jak Poore was a good soundtrack to the action.
As director and adapter Neal Foster has previous with Walliams, being responsible for the stage version of Gangsta Granny and is the actor/manager of The Birmingham Stage Company who present this production. I just feel that there is an inconsistency in the piece. Either it should be considerably shorter or there should be more to the first half. The audience made few murmurs before the interval but were fully engaged after it – engagement early on is very much required.
This is a fun production, with lovely performances and much to admire and a sweet story which leaves you with a yearning for young innocence when you could believe in fantasies and dreams before being cluttered with less palatable matters. But it is a flawed adaptation and might have been so much better if tighter and shorter.
AUNT ALBERTA – RICHARD JAMES
STELLA SAXBY – GEORGINA LEONIDAS
SOOT – ASHLEY COUSINS
GIBBON – HARRY SUTHERLAND
WAGNER – ROBERTA BELLEKOM
STRAUSS – SAM DE CHARJIR
DIRECTOR & ADAPTER – NEAL FOSTER
SET & COSTUME DESIGN – JACQUELINE TROUSDALE
LIGHTING DESIGNER – JASON TAYLOR
SOUND DESIGNER – NICK SAGAR
COMPOSER – JAK POORE
PUPPET MAKER – SUE DACRE
PUPPETRY DIRECTOR – ROMAN STEFANSKI