Travels With My Aunt at Cambridge Arts Theatre

Travels with my Aunt

Travels with my Aunt - Credit: Archant

Is it always right to choose a more exciting life than the (perhaps) humdrum one you already have?

Wouldn’t it be more fulfilling to have adventures, travel the world and take chances?

These are the questions posed in Graham Greene’s novel Travels with my Aunt which has been adapted for the stage. But is it worth travelling to the Arts Theatre in Cambridge to see?

The setting is a 1960s English pub. Sitting (or swaying) on the bar stools are our four storytellers who, like a tipsy pub bore whom you can’t shut up, will relate the tale of Henry, a retired bank manager and obsessive grower of Dahlias. Henry’s life is dull but safe until he meets his Aunt Augusta at his mother’s funeral. This aged auntie is quite a gal with a few big family secrets to reveal and she tempts Henry into joining her on journeys to exotic lands via a string of comical capers.

From the very first lines, you will know that this is no ordinary story, nor is it ordinary story telling. The four actors (three men and a woman) share the story by passing the baton of characters among them. Thus Henry and Aunt A are played by each of the four actors – and sometimes all together, or often in pairs, or as a trio of Henrys. The men play women, the woman men and it all could get very confusing were it not for the fact that each is an outstanding actor.

This is a wonderful showcase for the dramatic arts – how a complete character (be it sinister Turkish policeman, forlorn African servant, dodgy art smuggler or racy septuagenarian aunt) can be inhabited with a rapid change of prop.

Whoever holds a pair of pink glasses becomes Auntie – and sometimes all four of them are, passing the story around like a well-swigged bottle of whisky.

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One can certainly enjoy the spectacle as the talented quartet conjure up a feast of eccentrics in exotic locations such as Istanbul or Paraguay. The energy levels displayed are exhausting enough for the audience let alone the actors. It is a very fast moving story that while seeming like a Boy’s Own adventure has some very troubling dark sides. Henry is drawn into an unfamiliar world where moral choices are substituted for hedonistic ones and nothing comes without a price tag.

This is where the production lets down the morality tale. Greene’s warnings about the pursuit of pleasure go rather unheeded in the often relentless pace of the production and its constant shifts of character. The direction of travel in plot and location is often muddied by the brilliant but flawed conceit of having multiple Henrys and Augustas. The overall effect is to distance us from what is already a distancing story and the outcome is like looking at fascinating goings on through the wrong end of a telescope. Sometimes it is right to choose a less exciting way to tell a story.