Melissa Blease reviews the stage adaptation of David Walliams’ Awful Auntie, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 27 October
A vile villain and a humble heroine. Silly jokes and a friendly ghost. A haunted house, a car chase and a denouement that makes the audience go “aaaah” – has pantomime season come early to the Theatre Royal? Oh no it hasn’t; we are, in fact, being invited to join the frenetic fun in weird’n’wacky (David) Walliams’ world, where owls are sagaciously sentient, butlers erratically eccentric and aunties… well, aunties are absolutely awful.
When 12-year-old Stella Saxby wakes up from a 12-week-long coma, she learns that her parents were killed in the same car accident that she was injured in. As if that news isn’t difficult enough to deal with, Stella also quickly realises that her utterly dreadful Aunt Alberta’s pernicious plan to rob her of inheritance and her home, Saxby Hall, is well underway…
Based on the seventh best-selling children’s book written by the popular British actor, comedian, author, Britain’s Got Talent judge and TV presenter (phew!), Awful Auntie follows hot on the heels of the previous page-to-stage success of Walliams’ Gangsta Granny, and is bought to life by the same production team, award-winning Birmingham Stage Company.
As you’d expect, the stage show is skilfully designed to capture the concentration and imagination of younger audiences (the book carries an age-guidance rating of 8+). Having said that, the joyfully juvenile jollification within a plot that, although straightforward and uncomplicated in essence, dashes along to a pace and tempo that’s engaging enough to keep adult minds from wandering while cleverly remaining gentle enough to ensure that little people aren’t left behind.
The set too is nowhere near as simple as it first appears: rotating towers built around spiral staircases beyond grand fireplaces, artfully-lit backdrops and constant scene changes between the library, various bedrooms and even the grounds of Stella’s family home bring an elegant sense of scale to Saxby Hall, while puppeteer Roberta Bellekom’s mastery in bringing Wagner – Aunt Alberta’s hench-owl, if you will – to full, flamboyant life adds further fascinating magic and mystery to proceedings.
To return to the pantomime theme for a moment, if Georgina Leonidas brings touch of Cinderella-esque vulnerability to her role as the initially naïve but eventually super-brave, super-resourceful Stella, Ashley Cousins as her cheeky cockney cohort Soot – a chimney-sweep-with-a-twist (there be no spoilers here) – is her perfect Buttons.
Meanwhile, Harry Sutherland as decrepit, idiosyncratic butler Gibbon brings subtle comedic context and a further sense of the ridiculous to the party. But a thriller simply ain’t a proper thriller without a charismatic baddie… and Richard James seethes such deliciously wicked relish into the role of Aunt Alberta (which – grown ups take note – partly calls on Jack Nicholson in one of his most infamous horror film characters for divinely evil inspiration at one high point in the action) that you’re almost sorry when her diabolically nefarious schemes are threatened.
Toilet humour and ants-in-pants; belly laughs and outlandish pranks; thrills, spills… and a sweetly sentimental message for all to take away and pay heed too at the very end: Walliams’ world might be a bit weird, but it’s definitely wonderful. And when it comes to inspired stories for kids, the writer definitely has talent – Awful Auntie gets my Golden Buzzer.