Saturday, May 14, 2016

"Travels with my Aunt" Disappointingly ordinary fare from the usuallyextraordinary Chichester Festival Theatre

The day before I saw "Travels with My Aunt" I saw Hugh Bonneville and company in a scintillating production of the Ibsen/Hampton "An Enemy of the People". It was one of the best theatrical experiences of my life and I will write about it soon. We have come to expect the highest quality at Chichester and the Ibsen production was as good as it gets. But the new musical based on Graham Greene's novella fell far short of the Theatre's usual standard.

If you are going to dramatise "Travels with My Aunt" and add music there has surely to be a reason why. I enjoyed the 1970s film with Maggie Smith and Alec McCowan and the 1990s stage play. So the first question you can legitimately ask is "Why?" now a musical. If Stephen Sondheim had done it you'd have your reason. But this was by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe who are not, it should be said, in that league - and it showed. There was no consistent style (pun intended) to Stiles musical score - sometimes ersatz Sondheim, sometimes Frederick Loewe on an off day. Steven Pacey, who played the middle-aged Henery Pulling who is travelling with his Aunt, sounded like Henry Higgins at times. 

"Travels with my Aunt" is Graham Greene Lite - an "Entertainment" rather than a novel. That said, as with all Greene, there is more to it than a superficial reading would suggest. It is satire and the story is deliberatly absurd. The book of the Musical is reasonably faithful to the original and as such becomes a fairy tale but, I felt, one without much meaning. I don't know whether it was designed as a vehicle for Patricia Hodge who plays Aunt Augusta  - they have given her a starring role, but her character does not have much depth. She performs it well and sings well too. But we are not convinced that her character is even slightly real.

You will not come away whistling the tunes - they were uniformly ordinary. The staging is minimalist and there was little real oomph in any of the numbers. The cast was good, the dancing lively and the ensemble singing adequate. But it all seemed to go on too long and be inordinately pleased with itself. In truth it's not very good and I doubt that it will have much life after its Festival run.


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