Darlington Hippodrome – until 3 March 2018. Reviewed by Andy Bramfitt
Braving the awful weather, we trekked off, through the snow and frozen roads, and made for the latest incarnation of David Walliams’ darkly funny sense of humour, and boy were we glad we did. Awful Auntie is a brilliant piece of classic storytelling, very reminiscent of Roald Dahl, and, using some pretty unique set design, brings an almost animated feel of special effects which really brings the pages and illustrations to life.
The story is one of young Stella Saxby (the wonderful Georgina Leonidas), who, after recovering from a tragic car accident in which her parents are both killed, realises that her Auntie Alberta (the scarily familiar Timothy Speyer) is not the benevolent soul she purports to be. Aided by a ghostly chimney sweep Soot (Ashley Cousins) she sets to to try and unravel the lies Auntie has been feeding her and to protect her inheritance of the family mansion.
This has all the hallmarks of a David Walliams story – it is packed with over-the-top characterisations, threat, dark humour and no shortage of action, with a morale undertale which never risks overpowering the story but is still sat, ever present on the shoulder of the fun. Georgina runs the story, everything is told through her and she manages to keep the energy levels high and the feeling of peril constant, making for riveting viewing. Ashley Cousins, is very reminiscent of a young Tommy Steele (a la Half a Sixpence) – whether this was by design or just a reflection of Ashley’s own persona is up for debate but what is unquestioned is that he creates a loveable sidekick, aide and confidante and gives the kids in the audience a hero to root for.
Of course, the titular Auntie deserves special mention – deliciously eccentric and obsessively self centred, Timothy Speyer would give Mr Walliams a run for his money in his portrayal and is very familiar, especially to fans of Little Britain.
Additional comic slapstick is provided by Gibbon – the loony butler and house-servant who seems to be constantly in a world of his own, while the house trained Mountain Owl Wagner (and his handler Roberta Bellekom) create the twist needed to underpin the ‘good will win’ out’ finale.
The set design by Jacqueline Trousdale is ingenious; simplistic in appearance yet clearly the product of hundreds of hours of design, planning and creation. She has managed to portray 4 floors of a sprawling manor house, the grounds, the garage and the roof tops all in front of your eyes and yet totally immersive.
As said, it was a snowy day, most kids had been off school and as such the atmosphere before the show began was of excitement and an excess of energy, not usually the ingredients for having a young audience sit still and concentrate, but from the first scene onward there was a hushed concentration which never waived – always the sign of a great story and brilliant story telling.
If you have any children who may be getting a bit stir crazy from having to stay in and watch the weather, then this would be a perfect way to escape the cold and snow – just be careful if they have Aunties of their own as you may find them making comparisons.