Magic in the theatre happens in many ways. It can be elaborate – elegant words, ear-catching music, elaborate costumes, fantastic scenery, a swirl of movement, a large cast. It can be stark – a handful of actors in everyday dress on a bare stage. When it works, it doesn’t really matter down which road the author, director and designer have chosen to travel. What does matter is what happens when there is an audience involved.
Giles Havergal’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s Travels with my Aunt pares the novel down to its essentials with only four actors playing all the parts –really only three as the fourth is that increasingly popular on-stage presence, the ubiquitous stage manager (Simon Jessop). Elliot Harper, Sam Pay and Marcus Webb are all Henry Pulling, the retired bank manager jolted out of his passive life when his late mother’s sister attends the funeral. They are synchronised but separate. Just like Henry’s character, in fact.
Split-second timing is required if this journey into the credible absurd is to allow us a smooth passage. This director Liz Marsh has achieved, with a great deal of help from Rodney Ford’s clever set. It circles the stage with panels of a sort of institutional green which are studded with doors and drawers to reveal beds and graves, book-shelves and occasional tables as well as most of the props and costume items required to transform business-suited men into elderly ladies, wistful spinsters, wilful teenagers, shady minions of the law and even more dubious ones from the criminal undergrowth of two continents.
The book is studded with gloriously anarchic set pieces and we experience most of these during this exercise in three-dimensional magic. All four players are excellent, switching roles at the flick of a fur stole or the assumption of a different hat. Projections by Ken Telford set the scenes, from the home counties through mainland Europe and finally across the Atlantic to Paraguay. Greene was famously concerned with the wages of sin in his more serious books but Henry’s travels with his aunt are pure entertainment. Not so pure, of course, that there isn’t bite in the mixture. Which just adds to the pleasure for everyone.