“While you’ve flitted and you’ve flirted
I’ve had rubber gloves inserted”
The Telegraph describes Travels With My Aunt as the perfect Sunday night musical, but whilst I’m all for a smattering of “gentle feel-good enjoyment” (I loved both Ballykissangel and Monarch of the Glen with the best of them), it’s hard not to feel that this show also panders to the less-flattering side of that comparison too. In that it is thoroughly old-fashionedly middle-of-the-road, the traditional white, middle-class kind of undemanding entertainment that rarely gets the pulse racing yet still raises an eyebrow with the amount of stereotyping that it purveys.
You can see why Jonathan Church chose it to open his last season at the Chichester Festival Theatre, it’s a safe bet for that venue and its typical audience and there’s nothing wrong in that, I just can’t pretend to have any enthusiasm for it. A musical adaptation of Graham Greene’s 19969 novel of the same name, it comes from the same team who brought us Betty Blue Eyes – writers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman and composers George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. But where that show had a liberating sense of nostalgia, this one kept me prisoner.
Christopher Luscombe’s production is undoubtedly well-performed – Steven Pacey’s Henry encounters his Aunt Augusta for the first time in many decades at his mother’s funeral and of course he falls under her spell, it’s only bloody Patricia Hodge hamming it up for all she’s worth. The pair make an enterprising couple as he becomes her travelling companion on a series of journeys that take them across Europe and into South America, embarking on adventures that are inextricably linked to the past and the secrets that it hides, thought there’s little to convince of the bon viveur she’s meant to have been or how his character is a suitable leading man.
Plus, the shoehorning of this picaresque tale into this ill-suited, dated musical form sits uneasily with any reasonable sense of today’s society. The move from country to country is taken as an opportunity to rehash stereotype after stereotype and incorporate ham-fisted musical references that are just cringe-worthy. ‘It’s of its time’, you might cry, ‘it’s lazily xenophobic’, I’d respond, but what is truly unforgivable is the writing of Augusta’s lover Wordsworth, a Sierra Leonean man whose portrayal is frankly embarrassingly close to straight-up racism.
And as the tale deviates into a dubious amorality and its sexual politics become progressively iffy too, I found myself increasingly ill-disposed towards this show. Chichester has an enviable record in transferring its musicals into London but I’m hoping this is the end of the line for Travels With My Aunt, a rare but indubitable mis-step.