Theatre review: Travels With My Aunt

Travels with My Aunt  PIC: Pete Le May
Travels with My Aunt PIC: Pete Le May
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It’s 28 years since - in an effort to save money, one hard-pressed season - the then Citizens’ artistic director Giles Havergal quickly conjured up an adaptation of Graham Greene’s great 1969 novel Travels With My Aunt, to be performed on an almost-bare stage by four men wearing ordinary business suits. Havergal even appeared in the show himself, as well as writing and directing; and so was born one of those legends of theatre, in which a piece of work hastily created for the simplest of practical reasons became a global hit, delighting audiences from London to New York and far beyond.

Travels With My Aunt ****

Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow

So there’s a special delight in seeing Havergal’s magical adaptation return to the Citizens’ stage, in this new production by Phillip Breen; and all the more so because its subject - the radical one of whether people can change, and perhaps make the world change with them - seems particularly apt at a time when we are constantly being told that the very idea of changing our lives for the better is a mere pipe-dream, to be stamped out as quickly as possible.

In the life of Greene’s ageing hero Henry Pulling, the agent of change is his Aunt Augusta, who - in her mid-seventies, but with flaming red hair - turns up at his mother’s funeral to find her bachelor nephew living the ineffably tedious life of a retired bank manager in the London suburbs. In a trice, through his connection with Aunt Augusta, Henry finds himself caught up in a shady but thrilling world of international drug traffickers and fleeing war criminals, which takes him from London to Istanbul, and eventually to a place in Paraguay from which he seems unlikely to return. And the joy of the adaptation is the brilliance with which it captures this process of change, as Henry’s voice shifts between Tony Cownie’s timorously conventional Henry, Joshua Richards’s bowler-hatted City Henry, and Ian Redford, who is both Aunt Augusta, and the hint of that hidden Henry who will eventually come to recognise himself as her kin, even closer than he knows.

Greene’s story is a masterpiece of witty and perceptive social satire, ripping the veil in the most entertaining style from the dirty dealings and illegitimate acts - both sleazy and joyful - that underpin conventional British middle-class life. And Giles Havergal’s superb adaptation does it full justice, capturing every breath of its wit and wickedness; and its profound rejection of the mixture of hypocrisy and ignorance that characterises Henry’s “respectable” life - until Aunt Augusta comes along, and changes everything.

*Until 20 May