At Chichester, Patricia Hodge is putting “the living in life” as the wacky Aunt in Drewe and Stiles’ new musical, Travels With My Aunt. A terrific score augments a clever, literary script and makes for a festive, fizzy night of fun.
Often, the first production of a new musical can come to define it, be the barometer of its success. Merrily We Roll Along was a famous flop when it premiered in New York, but no one thinks of it as a flop now. No one attempts to recreate that original production either. Some would say that Candide has never worked as well as it did in the Chocolate Menier revival, a completely new production of a much revised work. Chicago, revived and performed in concert mode, is now known for that mode, not its original book-musical presentation.
Each of Bend It Like Beckham and Made In Dagenham were modest successes, artistically anyway, but each might have benefited from better, different productions. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory will be refashioned for Broadway, but not every show gets that luxury treatment.
Betty Blue Eyes and Lend Me A Tenor are examples of new musicals which played in the West End and which suffered because of their initial productions. Some key roles in both productions were given to people who were simply not up to delivering the full impact of the score but who were “names”. Neither had productions that focused on magnifying the impact and effect of the musical.
Betty Blue Eyes paid too much attention to an animatronic pig; it was treated like an epic piece when, really, it was a smaller, more intimate, chamber musical, delightful and delicate, but with bright high points. It’s best moment occurred when simplicity was the key: Magic Fingers. That production was accounted a flop and there are no plans for a Broadway transfer or, indeed, any kind of new life for Betty Blue Eyes. In truth, though, it’s a great original musical in search of an affirming and supportive production and cast.
Now brightening the horizon in Chichester is Travels With My Aunt, a musical based on Grahame Greene’s novel, with music by George Stiles, lyrics from Anthony Drewe, and a book by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, the creative team behind Betty Blue Eyes. Director Christopher Luscombe uses the limited space at the Minerva to great advantage, and the result is finely-tuned fun on a small scale, with bubbly effervescent performances that make one smile and clap continuously.
Luscombe does a splendid job given the constraints of the production, and so does Ewan Jones, whose choreography is endlessly joyful, often very sexy, and kooky in precisely the right way to reflect the life and ideals of Aunt Augusta, around whom everything revolves. Jig Jig and She Puts The Living In Life are standout numbers in a score chock-full of delirious folly, unchained melancholy and good, old-fashioned, tuneful giddiness. Like all great musicals, it sweeps you up in its tsunami of style, makes you laugh, cry and want to dance.
However, this production of Travels With My Aunt suffers from the opposite problem which affected Betty Blue Eyes. This is an epic piece, with travels across continents, a sense of large scale chaos, and threats to the small band of intrepid heroes which are big in scale. It calls out for bigger, brassier orchestrations, an ensemble of at least twice the size, and a set design that can glamourise and compound the plot twists, turns and reveals. A bigger stage and greater ambitions for the work – that is what is needed here.
That is not to suggest, in any way, that the Minerva version of Travels With My Aunt does not succeed on its own terms, because it absolutely does. But by keeping the production values, the cast and orchestra small, there is a lingering sense, in true Oliver fashion, of wanting more. There is a Business Class feel, rather than the more appropriate First Class feel – and in a musical about travel, class and identity, the difference is notable.
Greene’s book was very much of its time, but his notions of the British way of looking at life, love, honour and the rest of the world, especially those parts that might even now be thought exotic, are still as trenchant and acutely observed as ever. Cowen and Lipman are very faithful, appropriately, to Greene’s vision with the result that this period piece attains the whimsical spirit it needs while still making relevant points, often through the use of very pointed caricatures or tropes.
Drewe and Stiles, two of the most under-rated creators of music theatre in the world, take full advantage of the panorama Travels With My Aunt provides. There are gentle, idiosyncratic character pieces (Life’s Too Short, Tending My Dahlias), ballads (A Feeling I Call Home, We’re Getting There) and glorious set pieces which really delight (Keep Moving, In The Eyes Of Italian Men, Used For The Very Last Time, The Art Of Survival).
While there is an undeniable overall style, there are touches and augmentations which easily evoke the different places to which Henry and Augusta travel. For the most part, this is done firmly tongue-in-cheek, and rightly so. There are echoes of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, in that wildly respectful pastiche way, as well as the occasional breath from Honk! and Just So. It is a fresh and quite marvellous score: to quote one of their other triumphs, It’s Practically Perfect In Every Way.
Orchestrations from Nicholas Skilbeck and Tom Kelly, and astute, firm musical direction from Mark Aspinall, ensure the small eight piece band gives agile support to the score. As far as it goes, this works very well, but as noted above, the full potential of the score remains unrealised. Sadly.
This is not just about the orchestral accompaniment. While the ensemble singing is highly charged, with melodies and harmonies getting full and equal measure, much of the principal singing is less than ideal. Neither Patricia Hodge (a simply superb Aunt Augusta in every other way) nor Steven Pacey (a far cry from his days as Tarrant in Blake’s Seven, but impeccably uptight and fretful as Henry here) are singers, but both are more than capable of selling a story through song. This is a score where trained voices would be able to soar, would give an already enjoyable musical tapestry threads of pure gold.
Some insight into this is provided when the lustrous voice of Helen Flaherty is given full throttle in A Feeling I Call Home. Flaherty is vocally glowing, making her lost hippie character sweet and affecting. Hugh Maynard’s Wordsworth does good, but inconsistent, vocal work (his part in Keep Moving should be more electrifying than it is) but he gets away with it.
Jack Chissick and Jack Wilcox are in excellent voice as the aged and younger versions of Visconti. Having trained voices in the mix draws attention to those which are not trained which is less than ideal.
In other respects though, Luscombe’s production gives full value to Travels With My Aunt. The set design (Colin Falconer) is efficient and evocative; the ensemble move props and furniture around in deftly choreographed fluidity. The sense of travel, and all that brings, is constant and fulfilling. Henry’s horizons are broadened as the audience watches, alert and inspired.
Falconer’s costumes are gaudy and grand, examples of great design on a less than ample budget. Especially good is the sense of worldliness and weariness evident in the clothes that Hodge’s Aunt wears; she is the embodiment of faded, capricious grandeur. But, actually, all of the costumes are delightful, from the air hostess outfits to the uniforms of the Istanbul militia; they help the ride of the narrative enormously.
Inherent in the book is a celebration of older people. The leads here are not pretty twenty/thirty glamour gals and guys; no, they are people who have lived, or in Henry’s case, a man who has resolutely not lived. Aunt Augusta is a septuagenarian full of life and raging lusts; a marvellous older woman we seldom see on stage. Henry is not quite that old, but he is fussy, doddery and unfulfilled, a man who tends dahlias rather than run empires: a gamma male perhaps, but not an alpha one.
These are refreshing characters for a gentle romantic tale of adventure and self-realisation, and Luscombe does not seek to fudge them. Hodge and Pacey act with zealous glee and restrained charm respectively and it’s particularly rewarding to see old troupers in roles in which they can shine (singing aside).
The ensemble is first-rate, sexy and very hardworking. They give palpable life to Jones’ brisk and convoluted dance routines, putting the narrative into period perspective and pulsing energy into every phrase. They work constantly, ever shifting character and purpose, but always utterly in the moment. Special praise to Jack Wilcox, Nicholas Duncan, Sarah Earnshaw and Abiola Ogunbiyi who were quite outstanding.
Jonathan Dryden Taylor is in fine fettle as the mysterious, misjudged Man In The Raincoat and, by way of contrast, makes a fine Sparrow. Sebastien Torkia has a marvellous moment in the sun as the very Italian Mario and makes the very most of it.
Flaherty, in many ways, has the part that is the hardest to pull off, not the least because of the age gap between her Tooley and the man she ends up marrying (Spoilers!). She manages all of the role’s demands with assured grace, and proves very winning. So captivating is she that you cheer for her choice of life partner, no matter how odd it may, at first blush, appear.
But, without question, the evening belongs to Hodge. She is superb, one part Mame, one part Lady Bracknell, one part Eliza Dolittle and one part Mata Hari; all wonderful, wily, wilful woman. There is a carelessness and a carefulness about every aspect of the character. Steadily, remorselessly, she seduces the audience and opens their eyes, defies their expectations, shatters convention. It’s a truly magnificent performance.
Pacey, to give him his due, holds his own with the tornado of pleasure that is Hodge’s Augusta. The plaintive scenes where he lovingly tends his flowers while the world turns around him are delightfully done; he has a downtrodden sense of style which is profound and understandable. It’s impossible not to wish him happiness.
Luscombe’s Travels With My Aunt is terrific entertainment. It would have benefitted from a bigger cast, a bigger orchestra and a full stage presentation, much as the under appreciated A Damsel In Distress was given in last year’s Chichester Festival Season. And while Hodge and Pacey are wonderful, there is no denying that real singers would have propelled this show to a higher level.
Bernadette Peters as Aunt Augusta? No one would think of Travels With My Aunt as a “small” Musical then.