Travels with My Aunt review at Minerva Theatre, Chichester – ‘frothy and forgettable’
Travel is meant to broaden horizons, to enlighten and inculcate a sense of common humanity. People might have different customs and habits, but we’re all the same underneath. Kicking off Jonathan Church’s final season at Chichester, this new musical adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1969 novel Travels with My Aunt by Stiles and Drewe too often reinforces difference over commonality.
As septuagenarian Aunt Augusta – adventurous and sexual, one part Lady Bracknell to two parts Mrs Brown – yanks her reluctant nephew Henry around the world, the places they visit and the people they meet are exoticised, stereotyped, othered. It’s a well meaning show, with jaunty songs and endearing lead performances from Patricia Hodge and Steven Pacey, but it reduces everything within to face value.
Dreary provincial Britain, with its parquet floors and M&S cardigans, is set against the colour and thrill of travelling to other countries. Often this slips into broad caricatures, even broader accents and trite pastiche-heavy music (we’re in Paris, let’s whip out the accordion).
The musical, like the book, tries to get to grips with the social and sexual enlightenment of the sixties and its burgeoning counterculture, and in doing so offers a nostalgia kick to the baby boomers. But sometimes the show commits sins in its representation of the era, rather than challenging them. Wordsworth, Augusta’s young lover from Sierra Leone, is played almost as a stock comedy black man – he even has a calypso song just to make it absolutely clear that this guy’s a stereotype.
Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman’s book retains a lot of Greene’s wit, and the combination of antagonism and devotion between Aunt Augusta and Henry is well handled. Anthony Drewe’s lyrics use the idea of travel as both metaphor and the thing itself. Travelling represents journeying, motion, learning, acculturation - that sort of thing - and the lyrics convey the sense that the more Augusta and Henry see and do, the more they grow as people and the deeper their relationship develops.
Chichester’s Minerva theatre is left fairly blank, with a railway departure board and a big glass-and-wood cabin, those carriage compartments that old trains used to have, comprising most of the set. Apart from that, under the nifty direction of Christopher Luscombe, the performers artfully fling chairs and benches around, using the space to good effect as they conjure trains, planes and automobiles with a minimum of props and fuss.
Hodge and Pacey seem to be the only two whose characters have much depth; the rest seem a bit too undercooked. It’s a slick production, sometimes funny, often frothy and mostly forgettable.