Bristol Hippodrome – until 6th May 2018
Reviewed by Lucy Hitchcock
From the Birmingham Stage Company, comes an adaptation of “Awful Auntie”. Originally penned by David Walliams, Neal Foster has taken this best selling children’s book and created a dynamic piece of theatre that is visually very impressive.
In 1940’s Britain, young Stella Saxby awakes from a coma by her Aunt Alberta. Alberta explains that both Stella’s parents are dead and immediately begins to ask for the deeds to ‘Saxby House’, which Stella refuses to hand over, subsequently causing her to be thrown into a dark dungeon.
She meets the ghost of ‘Soot’ down in the dungeon and he helps her to escape. Whilst doing so, Stella’s comes across the car her parents drove when they died, but finds no faults with it sparking a Holmes and Watson style investigation into her parents death. Stella determines that they were poisoned by Alberta, so she contacts local authorities to report the murders instigated by her Awful Auntie. The detective shows up to investigate, but is really Alberta in disguise! She reveals that she did use poisonous plants to kill Stella’s parents and locks Stella in an electrocution chamber, from which she can’t escape. However, with the help of Soot, Stella manages to retrieve her freedom. The 2 embark on an adventure; making Alberta leave Saxby Hall. Eventually, Alberta is carried away by her pet owl, Wagner and Stella adopts all the nearby orphans to live in Saxby Hall with her.
Aunt Alberta, played by Timothy Speyer, was splendid. His performance was light-hearted and consistent throughout. Along with the bright purple, green and orange costume, the garish and unsightly character Alberta was matched with a high pitched voice. At times, this voice change from Speyer was difficult to understand through the sound system, but nonetheless enhanced the performance greatly.
Stella, played by Georgina Leonidas, was also glorious. She played to the audience and really managed to capture the imagination of all the children in the audience. Whilst the character of Stella didn’t really provide us with an emotional arc, she was a joy to watch. Georgina was on the stage from the beginning of the show and didn’t leave at all, showing her brilliance and ability to fully stay in character.
Soot, played by Ashley Cousins is no stranger to the David Walliams stage adaptations and relished his role as a ghost. The vocal ability was brilliant-he had an unfaltering cockney accent that provided back story, as he was a chimney sweep from a workhouse who died. Ben was dynamic and provided some humour for both the children and the adults.
Detective Strauss, played by Peter Mistyyoph, was also skilled. He only had a small role but was everything a stereotypical detective is-loud, brash and has a distinguished look.Peter also provided some comedy, but personally, I would’ve liked to see more of his character.
Richard James portrayed ‘Gibbon’, an old, senseless butler who appears at moments to break the tension. With his hair in a mess, James didn’t need to try to provide the comedy-as soon as he walked onstage the children in the audience were in fits of laughter.
Roberta Bellekom encompassed the role of ‘Wagner’, Alberta’s pet owl. Roberta was exquisite. With no speech, she managed to make the audience believe she was the owl. Her handling of the 3 different puppets for Wagner were flawless. She was gliding through the stage amazingly, soaring high and low and at points I forgot the owl was a puppet. She was outstanding and truly was the star of the show.
This was quite a visual performance, with only 4 turrets onstage that twist and turn to become different areas of Saxby Hall. Some of the turrets have ladders inside and are used frequently, allowing the escape scenes to be executed with ease. Real cars and motorbikes were also used onstage, along with pyrotechnics. The electrocution scene was very dark, both in tone and lighting-as it took place in the dungeons. The darkness was cut with very bright lights showing the electrocution of Stella; accompanied by screams this was difficult to watch for some.
Roman Stefanski deserves much praise for the execution of the show, as his puppets were phenomenal-so realistic and beautifully crafted. They were a treat to watch and showed his excellent craftsmanship.
‘Awful Auntie’ was an easy watch, however some of the characters were difficult to understand – whether that was due to the sound systems or speech I don’t know, but it left me feeling that the show could be a little more refined. With that in mind however, both Walliams and Foster have done a wonderful thing with this piece. They have brought children to theatres and sparked their enjoyment in this excellent craft. To hear the roar of laughter from the children in the audience was a special moment and this show will no doubt spark the next generation of Awful Aunties.