If David Walliams looks to his nearest and dearest as inspiration for his stories, can you imagine what his family gatherings must be like? (I’d love to be a fly-on-the wall at Christmas.) First there was Gangsta Granny, about a cardigan-wearing, cabbage-loving octogenarian who can’t stop stealing precious jewels: Birmingham Stage Company’s adaptation of Walliams’s best-selling book has toured for almost two years, including a stint in the West End, and earned an Olivier Award nomination. Now, the theatre company have taken on Awful Auntie, though the eponymous relative of this story is far less friendly – imagine Miss Trunchbull crossed with Toad of Toad Hall, if both had a murderous interest in property fraud. What should we expect next? Nasty Niece, involving a seemingly sweet little girl and an ASBO? Crooked Cousin, about a pesky distant relative busted for money laundering?
Aunt Alberta (Timothy Speyer) – a tartan-suited brute with the irritating habit of rhyming every other word – is intent on owning the family’s grand stately home, Saxby Hall. Now that a couple of relatives have mysteriously disappeared in a “crashy-washy”, the only thing standing between Alberta and the property deeds is her 12 year-old niece, Lady Stella (Georgina Leonidas). Eager to escape her aunt’s clutches, and certain something fishy is going on, Stella joins forces with Saxby Hall’s ghost, Soot (Ashley Cousins), to fight back.
Awful Auntie is a thrilling mash-up of comedy, horror, and detective story. Though the two central sleuths, Stella and Soot, idolise Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, the show’s setting makes it feel more like Agatha Christie’s murder mystery play The Mousetrap, with Jacqueline Trousdale’s set of revolving turrets ingeniously capturing Saxby Hall’s winding passageways, multitude of rooms and extensive grounds.
Where there’s a stately home, there’s a butler, and Saxby Hall’s perpetually confused aide Gibbon is a comic, rather than a competent, servant, taking a rug for walkies and serving up smoked slippers instead of toast. Stella and Soot serve up their own slapstick hilarity when the play takes a Home Alone turn, and there’s even some toilet humour, though this isn’t just an easy bid for laughs. Somehow (you’ll just have to believe me on this one) Soot’s bottom burps also reinforce the show’s central message: that social class shouldn’t matter when it comes to friendship.
Whichever family member David Walliams picks on for his next book, I hope the partnership with Birmingham Stage Company continues: with their eccentric characters and over-the-top storylines, his books are ready fodder for the stage and become, in BSC’s experienced hands, note-perfect productions.
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