Review: Awful Auntie (Richmond Theatre)

The stage adaptation of David Walliams’ book is embarking on a UK tour

With death by fire and poison, multiple murder attempts and graphic scenes of torture by electrocution, this is not, on the face of it, a jolly Christmas show for children. But for the vast majority of the audience who are already huge fans of author David Walliams, it’s bringing to life a thriller they love, and which is already a classic of children’s literature. The show follows in the footsteps of Gangsta Granny, another Walliams title also successfully adapted by the Birmingham Stage Company.

Inspired by his hero Roald Dahl, Walliams created the monstrous Aunt Alberta, a Trunchbull-esque beast who is determined to become the unrivalled mistress of the family’s stately home, Saxby Hall. Murdering her surviving relatives is her preferred way of achieving that aim, but 12 year-old Lady Stella is made of stern stuff and fights back with help from young Soot, Saxby’s resident ghost.

Timothy Speyer swaggers and blusters with great gusto as Aunt Alberta, and Georgina Leonidas brings non-stop, youthful energy to Stella Saxby. The resourceful Soot is played by Ashley Cousins with wistful charm, and Richard James endears as the confidently confused butler Gibbon.

Director and adaptor Neal Foster has worked his way ingeniously around the problems of staging this comedy horror by making it take place in real time within the huge mansion and its grounds.

It’s been made possible by Jacqueline Trousdale’s triumphant design, with a set that revolves to allow the characters to chase each other in and out of rooms, up and down chimneys, and all around the house. The chimney climb is particularly chilling, especially once we have heard the story of how chimney sweep Soot met a ghastly end wedged within its confines.

Puppetry also features strongly, directed by Roman Stefanski. As Wagner the Great Bavarian Mountain Owl, Roberta Bellkom manages this supremely intelligent bird with grace and humour, and puppet maker Sue Dacre has excelled with a beautiful creation.

One of Walliams’ many strengths is making children reflect on other lives. In the programme notes he says, 'I think a good children’s book… should have a message that makes you think about it long after you have finished reading it.' His Awful Auntie highlights the huge gaps between social classes but also emphasises how little they really matter when it comes to human relationships. And there is plenty of bravery, resilience and spirit to warm to in the production.

However the torture scene in this play doesn’t hold back, and some might feel it’s too much to invite children to laugh at a girl being repeatedly electrocuted in a metal cage.

But as most of them will already be committed Awful Auntie enthusiasts, this show will no doubt prove just as successful as Gangsta Granny.

Awful Auntie runs at the Richmond Theatre until 5 November before touring to Milton Keynes, Birmingham, York, Woking, Bristol, Wimbledon, Bristol, Brighton, Manchester, Sunderland and Aylesbury.