A spot of late Spring sunshine was just the perfect welcome as we arrived in Chichester for the first of this year’s two theatrical weekends Sussex-style. We were joined, in their inaugural visit to the Chichester Festival Theatre, by Mrs Chrisparkle’s aunt and uncle, Professor and Mrs Plum. Naturally, we started with a swish lunch in the Minerva Brasserie – one simply just has to, you know. I’m delighted to say that both the brasserie and the bar and grill upstairs have had something of a facelift since we last visited and they both look fantastico.
Travels with my Aunt – which was our matinee treat – is of course originally a novel by Graham Greene, but we have seen a wonderful play adaptation at the Royal and Derngate back in 2010, and now there’s this new version, reincarnated as a musical, with book by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, music by George Stiles and lyrics by Anthony Drewe. The story consists of a huge amount of daftness – this is it in a nutshell: Henry Pulling is an old-before-his-time gentleman who has devoted his life to growing dahlias. Aunt Augusta is his septuagenarian aunt who acts half her age, was a prostitute in her youth and even today runs all around the world doing shady deals. She has a much younger lover – Wordsworth – from Sierra Leone, but is also selling everything to pay off the ransom for the true love of her life, Mr Visconti; and this is where she enlists Henry’s help. Henry travels with her, round Europe and South America, on the search for this mysterious man, unwillingly encountering adventures on the way. They find the human dynamo that is Visconti; and all this excitement eventually rubs off on Henry, who, much to his surprise, finds out that survival by illegal import/export trade based in Paraguay has more flair to it as a lifestyle than daily dahlia-tending.
As you take your seats, Colin Falconer’s set beautifully recreates a 1969 railway station, complete with swanky lit destination signs just like they used to have at Baker St station (maybe they still do?), dingy waiting room, comfortless wooden benches, a ticket collector’s booth, and many other late 60s railway reminders. With a little movement and relighting, the waiting room turns into many other indoor scenes such as Augusta’s flat, a pub, and a compartment on the Orient Express. The costumes are perfect for that 1969 vibe, with Tooley wonderfully decked out as a pot-smoking hippie, the girls in the ensemble as bright blue stewardesses straight out of Boeing Boeing, and Wordsworth in relaxed splendour in the style of a Rhythm of Life dancer from Sweet Charity.
The show opens with a couple of terrific scenes: Henry, on the point of being executed, comes out of character and addresses the audience in a matter of fact style, and, with his delightfully upper crust accent, instantly creates a surreal atmosphere of quirky comedy. We then see the railway station transformed into a chapel for Henry’s mother’s funeral, which is where we meet Aunt Agatha, who sings a hilariously disrespectful song to the effect that life’s too short to waste time saying goodbye to the dead. It’s a really positive start to the show. But then something rather odd happens for the next quarter of an hour or so. It all seemed to lose energy, it got bogged down in exposition, and it felt a bit twee. I had thought that, as it is a rather bizarre story, one might expect the artificiality of the musical genre to work well with it. But it appeared that it was just going to become bland.
Fortunately, I was wrong! Before long there is a scene where the ensemble are sweetly dancing to a jolly song with cutesy lyrics but in the middle of the stage sits Aunt Augusta, the amount of her ransom money found wanting, getting physically assaulted by the scum of a lowlife who’s demanding the cash. That really uncomfortable juxtaposition between the musical matinee sweetness and the physical violence really pulled me up short. Perhaps this isn’t going to be as Women’s Institute-like as it first appeared? Indeed it isn’t. Once it really gets going, the show uses the musical format to excellent purpose, playing up the surreal and frequently questionable nature of the subject matter, like sugar sorbet icing on bitter aloes. The tunes are fun, the lyrics witty, and the performances are extremely good.
Aunt Augusta is played by the brilliantly no-nonsense Patricia Hodge, and you couldn’t find a more suitable pair of hands to play this unpredictable and exuberant character. She shows that she still has an excellent singing voice, great comic timing, and a terrific aura of dignity about her. In many ways she is perfect casting, as Augusta is meant to be in her 70s but acting much younger; well Miss Hodge isn’t quite in her 70s yet but certainly behaves like a flirtatious girl, which is just what you want from the character. A most enjoyable performance.
But at the heart of this production is the fantastic portrayal of Henry by Steven Pacey, an actor who never fails to delight. We’ve seen him as an avuncular Sir Politic Would-be in Volpone, a hilarious Peter in Relative Values (opposite Patricia Hodge) and a wonderfully gruff Sir Francis in the Menier’s Charley’s Aunt. But I think his Henry is his crowning glory. You really get the sense of Henry’s journey from gardener to guerrilla (well, not quite that bad maybe), his changing relationship with Augusta, his awakening of the romantic side of life when he meets Tooley, and his natural heroic decency. He brings out all the comedy of the role without ever overplaying his hand, and you really feel that you know Henry deep down as a person. It’s a brilliant performance.
There are some very good supporting performances too: Hugh Maynard’s Wordsworth is a larger-than-life 60s retro character, almost a parody of himself as a groovy lurve machine; he wouldn’t have been out of place in an Austin Powers movie. Although we felt the characterisation belonged almost too much to a pre-political correctness age, his enormous sense of fun at the centre of the song and dance routines was irresistible. Haley Flaherty is a rather sweet and impressionable Tooley, surprising herself by her feelings for the older man; and Jack Chissick enjoys himself hugely in his dual roles as the vicious Colonel Hakim and the humorously ineffectual Mr Visconti. The ensemble give us loads of energy with their dance sequences and character vignettes, and the whole vibe is one where the cast come together to tell us a story of war criminals, art theft, violence and adultery, but keeping it light at the same time. We all enjoyed it enormously. It runs at the Minerva until 4th June. As Miss Hodge might say under other circumstances – such fun!
P. S. As a very minor aside, I’ve never seen such unconvincing onstage smoking. Nothing was ever lit, no little glow of heat ever appeared at the end of a cigarette, no smoke ever emerged. It may be healthier that way, but it did look a little silly!
Production photos by Tristram Kenton