Sheffield Lyceum – until 16 June 2018
Reviewed by Lottie Davis-Browne
It’s a snowy December, 1933 when twelve year old Stella Saxby wakes from her bed in Saxby Hall, the families large estate (although not quite as well known as the likes of Chatsworth House etc but still a grand stately home none-the-less), she discovers that she is wrapped in bandages and her Aunt Alberta informs her that she has been in a coma and that both her parents died following a tragic car accident. Stella is sole heir to Saxby Hall, however Aunt Alberta has other ideas and is plotting to trick Stella to sign the Hall over to her and will stop at nothing to achieve her goal. Along with her trusted companion – Wagner, a giant owl the evil Alberta certainly lives up to her moniker as being awful, showing no sympathy and lacking morals, having chosen to fight on the German side in World War One, simply because she preferred the colours of their uniforms!
The stage set mainly comprises of three large “pillars” which rotate to change from doors to staircases and the library of Saxby Hall.
It’s really quite difficult to describe the set but visually it’s utter genius and whisks you into the weird and wonderful world of eccentric Aunt Alberta and makes one feel like you’ve done a sort of Alice In Wonderland trick and fallen into some magical world. Another favourite in the set (other than the fabulous puppetry of Wagner the owl by Roberta Bellekom and the puppets of Alberta and Stella in a particular scene) is the splendid replica vintage Rolls Royce in which Stella attempts to make her escape in.
When Stella meets Saxby Hall ghost Soot, a cockney chimney sweep who ended up “brown bread” (that’s “dead” to you and I!) when someone lit a fire whilst he was cleaning the halls chimney and “burnt mi’ bum!’, the pair, realising something isn’t quite as it seems with the so called accident which resulted in her parents death and her Aunts attempts to get Stella to sign over Saxby Hall to her, the pair decide to turn into their own version of Sherlock Holmes and Watson to solve the mystery once and for all and attempt to break free from the awful Aunt and save Saxby Hall.
I have yet to read any of David Walliams’ books, therefore was unsure what to expect. Admittedly I was a tad disappointed as there were far too many similarities with Roald Dahl characters/storylines – Aunt Alberta reminded me too much of the Trunchbull – a mannish power driven woman with little compassion for others (the Trunchbull’s first name is Agatha, again a bit too similar to Alberta). Some of Walliams’ books use artwork by Quentin Blake, who also did artwork for Roald Dahls’ books. A scene in this production reminded me of the chokey in Matilda amongst several other elements that felt too much like they were trying to mimic or copy Roald Dahl. Personally I found the story too unoriginal and felt somewhat deflated.
However, granted the naff toilet jokes (which even failed to raise a giggle from the hundreds of children in the audience) plus the un-original storyline, the production was made enjoyable by Timothy Speyer as the title character – the comical tartan bloomers and matching suit jacket and the copper hair which seemed to have a mind of its own who even seemed scary to the adults! Granted that this is a children’s book I certainly would not recommend anyone under the age of ten watching this production, there’s bits in it which are quite dark and scary and not ideal for younger or sensitive children. Aunt Alberta is a towering inferno of a woman and Speyer really brings out the scary wicked side of Aunt Alberta, this deranged cold hearted woman who thinks of her own desires before her family. It wasn’t long until I’d really warmed to the character, whereas I struggled to warm to her niece and orphan Stella Saxby (Georgina Leonidas) – who seemed to think the only way to connect with the children in the audience was to be a bit too shouty and over the top. Ashley Cousins on the other hand as ghost Soot was loveable, portraying a young boy beautifully, from his voice to his mannerisms you soon forgot that the role was obviously played by somebody much older than the character portrayed.
Although the laughs were far and few between, it was Richard James as Gibbon, the eccentric and slightly deranged Butler of Saxby Hall. Granted not the best Butler in the world, constantly getting things wrong, from hoovering the carpet with a lawn mower he finally proves his worth by stepping in to help Stella save Saxby Hall. Gibbons was the only character I particularly connected with in the story, the rest being somewhat of a disappointment.
If you or your child are a fan of David Walliams’ books then this is most certainly worth catching on tour. Otherwise on what is a very rare occasion for me, I would say give this one a miss!