Awful Auntie Live on Stage
Birmingham Stage Company
I have never read any David Walliams books, least of all Awful Auntie, but I did have high expectations of the show based on previous experience of Birmingham Stage Company (BSC).
I was not let down. This dark and dastardly story is a contemporary Roald Dahl affair. It blends terrible deeds and disgusting behaviour into a mild horror story that primary aged children seem to love.
It’s 1933. Stella Saxby wakes up in bed one day. She is head to toe in bandages and finds out via her horrible aunt that her parents are dead and she suffered trauma in a car accident. She soon begins to feel that something is wrong. Befriending a ghost in the cellar, the pair try to work out what is going on before Stella meets her own grisly fate.
At times during Act One, the Hippodrome stage seemed too big for this focused twisting tale of murder and mystery. BSC know how to tell stories but at times the claustrophobic horror lost its edge a little due to the vastness of the stage, or perhaps the auditorium, rather than the lack of design and direction. I couldn’t help but feel that had this been performed in the Redgrave we would have been drawn deeper into the slow burning tenseness rather than watching passively.
This all changed during Act Two, which was a roller coaster ride of spinning staircases, endless secret passages and final rooftop confrontation on the spires of the Gothic mansion. We even had a thrilling car chase around the stage.
Timothy Speyer as Aunt Alberta was just a horrific character, somewhere between Miss Trunchball and Annie Wilkes. Despite approaching life like a charmless murdering psychopath, his Awful Auntie somehow managed to stay on the Would-Have-Got-Away-With-It Scooby Doo side rather than going full on slasher thriller.
Richard James as the butler with dementia, probably stole the show. His attempt to catch a mouse with a giant net was a genuinely laugh out loud moment.
There was lovely use of puppetry throughout. Roberta Bellekom brought Wagner the owl to life beautifully. What is nice with this show is that although it’s a very commercial piece on a big tour with big venues, it has managed to encompass traditional techniques, bringing some of the more interesting aspects of theatre to a more diverse than usual Hippodrome audience.
Georgina Leonidas was the plucky heroine Stella Saxby, even managing to pull out a genuinely moving final scene with Ashley Cousins as the tragic Soot.
As an audience, we really felt for Leonidas when she made a painfully uncomfortable phone call to the police and with her scenes with Peter Mistyyoph’s Detective Strauss. It beautifully highlighted the difficulties children, even today, face when trying to get adults to listen to them about something serious.
Jacqueline Trousdale’s set design with its endlessly rotating passages enhanced the feeling of suspense and tension beautifully.
A word of caution to parents with children who may struggle with loud noises – When Aunt Alberta goes to light her pipe in Act Two, there’s an incredibly loud bang. Children with sensory processing difficulties or autism should probably be forewarned about this.
Awful Auntie is a brilliantly bonkers piece of theatre. It’s much more clever and subtle than you would expect it to be. From the start, it gives a sense of growing unease, a sense of disassociation through the mind games of Alberta as we, along with Stella, come to the disjointed and growing realisation that something truly awful is about to happen.
Awful Auntie is at The Bristol Hippodrome until Sunday 06 May 2018
We recommend it for children aged 6 years upwards
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