Christopher Hunt (top) and Stephen Hair (bottom). Photo by Ben Laird.
Travels With My Aunt
March 8 – April 6, 2014
It’s not quite accurate to say that I didn’t know Simon Mallet had it in him. A director whose work I’ve come to admire, Mallet usually plies his trade in the small confines of the Motel space at EPCOR Centre. In the past I’ve used words such a deft and taut to describe his ability to make thoughtfully intimate stories visually arresting without much room to move them about. So it was somewhat of a surprise to learn that Mallet was to direct Travels With My Aunt, a globe-hopping comedic caper based on Graham Greene’s novel and adapted for the stage by Giles Havergal. But I suppose, considering Mallet’s staging strengths, it should be no surprise that this show is gorgeous top to bottom, even if the story itself is a little lacklustre.
The play, set in 1969, tells the story of Henry Pulling, a 55-year old retired straight-laced bank clerk who seems to have no interests or passions outside of tending to his dahlias. Yes, there’s an equally boring woman who seems to want to marry him, but Henry is ambivalent to the whole thing much as he is towards life in general. It isn’t until his Mother’s funeral all this changes thanks to meeting his flamboyantly unconventional Aunt Augusta who promptly informs him that his mother wasn’t actually his mother after all. It seems that Henry’s father was a notorious playboy who saddled Henry’s now deceased step mother with him before taking off some years later and mysteriously dying. Tempting Henry with the mystery of his real mother and drawing him in to what increasingly seems like her involvement in a litany of illegal for-profit activities with a bunch of colourful characters, Aunt Augusta whisks Henry around the world from one adventure to another with the police never far behind. You can easily guess the rest – Henry is transformed, his mother is revealed, any tragedy is swept aside in the zaniness and it all works out in the end. It’s too long, overly obvious and just not all that interesting despite the twists and turns and occasional laughs the play throws at us. But this one of those rare productions where the story itself can take a back seat thanks to Mallet, his design team and a foursome of talented performers.
The biggest ace up the sleeve in Travels With My Aunt is Havergal’s call for rotation and interchange of actors and roles. Each actor in the show (the dream team of Stephen Hair, Braden Griffiths, Christopher Hunt and Michael Tan all dressed alike in suits and hats) take turns at playing Henry, sometimes simultaneously. Additionally the actors are given many other characters to play with each one taking ownership of a key role. Hair delightfully conjures his best Auntie Mame in Aunt Augusta, Tan plays Augusta’s much younger valet/boyfriend Wordsworth, Griffiths plays O’Toole the undercover CIA agent and Hunt plays Mr. Visconti, the con-artist love of Augusta’s life.
All this back and forth and changing characters, often in mid-sentence could have been a jumbled mess, but Mallet flows the men through the shape shifting comedic narrative with elegant dancerly-like staging. For their part, the actors helped the transitions with their effortless slips in and out of characters. However it should be noted that while the men on stage were able to bring many great personalities to life, their prowess at some of the accents left much to be desired. Freetown-born Wordsworth often sounds Jamaican, Turkish police come off as Slavic and if that’s what an Italian accent sounds like, I’ll eat my shirt.
But again and surprisingly, all this is generally forgiven, especially when the lapses in accent are offset by our besotted obsession with Anton De Groot’s set design. Consisting of a two level structure made of suitcases, hidden compartments and peep holes, DeGroot’s set is as useful to the narrative as it is arresting to look at. Throw in the clever use of bell hop carts as cars (with a Flintstones driving technique that I admit made me laugh every time) and even when the story lagged, we were kept alert waiting to see what the set could do next.
Production over substance has rarely rung my bell. Take all the glitter away, I still want my theatre to grab me one way or another. But while Travels With My Aunt may not amuse enough to sufficiently tickle or intrigue enough to sit up and pay attention, it’s one of those production where maybe it doesn’t need to in order for it to be enjoyable.
For Mystery Lovers – Since Vertigo is a mystery theatre, some will come to this production expecting a Who Done It. But this play is more a comedy with a caper thrown in. Relax though, it’s still a fun ride and there’s enough of a reveal in the play satisfy you. SEE IT
For occasional theatre goers – At intermission I heard several folks talking about being confused at times with all the character changes. Still no one seemed to dislike the play. Consider this one where you might need to pay more attention than you are used to in order to have the good fun. MAYBE SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – This is not a show that NEEDS to be part of your canon. But if you can forgive the story and the accent issues you will luxuriate in some terrific direction, gorgeous set design and the efforts of four talented actors. MAYBE SEE IT