Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh – until 24 March 2018
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
There is a beautiful comic rhythm to Arkle’s Travels With My Aunt at the Assembly Roxy, coupled with an almost boundless invention in its staging, that is very pleasing indeed.
Graham Greene’s 1969 novel about Henry Pulling, a retired and retiring bank manager who meets his Aunt Augusta at his mother’s funeral and is soon drawn into a world of foreign travel, louche acquaintances and ludicrous coincidences, is perhaps as well known in Scotland for Giles Havergal’s 1989 stage adaptation for the Citizens in Glasgow (and revived there last year) as it is in its printed form.
And here is Havergal’s adaptation again, featuring four actors dressed in suits and bowlers, sharing the role of Henry as well as playing all of the other parts between them – with the exception, in this case, of Aunt Augusta, who is here played solely by Richard Godden.
The part of Henry passing constantly from one performer to another could be confusing if it is not deftly handled, but here it is beautifully seamless and adds greatly to the texture of the piece. Similarly, director David Grimes’ staging is endlessly and joyously creative, with picture frames and umbrellas becoming a train, a boat or a flat above a London pub.
The different styles of the actors also add depth to Henry – Oliver Cookson’s bluff, old-school uprightness, Nick Forrest’s befuddled dignity and Gordon Houston’s more expansive comic energy all impress. They are also wonderfully versatile when it comes to embodying the other characters, with Alistair Wales, who seems to have been relatively overlooked when the lines were doled out, managing a lovely Irish Wolfhound.
That Henry is such a rounded figure when many of the others are little more than comic sketches does become a little troubling, especially when Houston is called upon to play ‘funny foreigners’. He does it with a commendable energy and expert timing, but this does not stop the characterisation of Wordsworth, Augusta’s lover from Sierra Leone, from appearing horribly out of place.
That there are few such worries with the depiction of Aunt Augusta is testament to the delicacy of Richard Godden’s performance. There is nothing of the pantomime about him, although there is the odd reminder that the role was once played on radio by Patrick Fyffe in his Dame Hilda Bracket persona. Indeed, his performance is the most touching thing about a production that tends to go for comic rather than emotional effect.
Craig Robertson’s sound is a notable success, adding to the atmosphere without ever seeking to intrude. There can often be problems with audibility in the main space at the Roxy, particularly when the audience are on three sides as they are here, but this is never an issue.
cackle with glee
There are a couple of false steps in the staging, with matters appearing to come to a close five minutes before the actual end, but this is far outweighed by some moments – such as the representation of a taxi – that make you cackle with glee.
The glorious inventiveness on display never quite banishes the whiff of cynicism about the subject material. We are invited to believe that Henry is becoming less judgemental and less prejudiced as he leaves his staid life behind, but the choices he ends up making hardly square with this. Such worries are skated over to a degree here, but this hardly matters when the exemplary performances and staging mean this comes highly recommended.