Birmingham Stage Company present David Walliams’ 2014’s best-selling children’s story “Awful Auntie” – on tour across the UK until December 2018.
In the tried and tested vein of Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket, Walliams writes dark tales of suffering children overcoming adversity with humour and bravery. Here, Stella Saxby (Georgina Leonidas), heiress to Saxby Hall, wakes from a coma to find her parents have perished in a suspicious accident, and she is now under the care, or should that be control, of her “lovely-wovely” Aunt Alberta (Timothy Speyer). Alberta, who fought for the Germans in WWI (because she prefered the uniforms) quickly shows that she lives up to her “awful” moniker, and Stella’s escape plans formed with the newly discovered ghost, Soot (Ashley Cousins), are thwarted by her aunt’s ruthless, torturous streak. Add in a violent Owl called Wagner (Roberta Bellekom) and a very confused butler called Gibbon (Richard James) and you have a recipe for chaos!
Timothy Speyer as Aunt Alberta conjures up images of Terry Jones in Monty Python, screeching and blustering his way through scenes, although Alberta never quite feels as menacing as a woman who has her own electrocution cage should be. Granted, this is a children’s show, but to make a baddie deserve their inevitable unhappy ending, we have to genuinely dislike them rather a lot first. Leonidas’ Stella is full of youthful optimism, although I can’t help feeling that she’d get a lot more done in terms of escaping if she didn’t spend most of the play running from side to side while talking. She works well with Ashley Cousins’ Soot, the charming cockney sweep who came to a sad end in one of Saxby Hall’s chimneys – the pair strike up a lovely friendship in the way only children can, and their affection for one another is sweet to watch. Gibbons (Richard James) is, primarily, the comic relief in this otherwise quite dark story – but the character also works brilliantly from a technical point of view in terms of scene changes. The muddled man-servant certainly got some of the biggest laughs from the kids in the Derngate audience.
The star of the show, however, was the beautiful set from Jacqueline Trousdale. Vast pillars acting as the towers of Saxby Hall rotate around the stage to create various rooms and staircases, reminiscent of Hogwarts School. The chimney stack, an important plot device, is so elegantly and cleverly done, allowing Stella and Soot to climb upwards while the tower rotated to keep them in view of the audience. And I believe this is the first time I’ve ever witnessed an actual car chase on stage! Sue Dacre’s puppets too deserve a hearty round of applause – Wagner the owl is stunning, his little ears waggling giving him the opportunity to show emotion in the hands of Roberta Bellekom.
As with any children’s show, the laughter stemmed from the fart jokes, and the pranks pulled on Aunt Alberta – but I feel that trying to get children to laugh at a girl in a cage being repeatedly electrocuted was too much of an ask; there’s darkly funny and then there’s just dark. Perhaps the vacuous space in the Derngate was to blame, but there was an energy missing in Act One; once the children started laughing in Act Two the whole piece really came to life and truly filled the stage.
Fans of the book, and of Walliams’ other tales, are sure to enjoy it, but I’m not sure it has the charm of Walliams’ theatre success story, Gangsta Granny.
Awful Auntie runs at Royal & Derngate until Saturday 14 April 2018, then continues on tour across the UK
Performance: 10 April 2018, Derngate Auditorium, Northampton
Becki Cockcroft is a theatre lover originally from Birmingham. You can find her rambling on Twitter here: @beckicockcroft. As well as being the Founder and Managing Editor for On Stage Northants, she is also the Marketing Manager for Duston Players