REVIEW: Awful Auntie (Richmond Theatre) ★★

Following an incredibly successful run of Gangsta Granny both on tour and in the West End, Birmingham Stage Company turn their hand once again to adapting David Walliams’ praised children’s book, Awful Auntie. The story revolves around twelve year old Stella Saxby who wakes up from a ‘coma’ to find both her parents dead and her aunt trying to get her hands on the deeds to Saxby mansion.

Adapted and directed by Neal Foster (the man behind the genius Horrible Histories series), he explains, in an interview in the programme, his eagerness to start work on adapting Walliams’ latest work. The author himself also claims he ‘share[s] a sense of humour with Foster’ and that their collaboration ‘has been very harmonious’.

With Gangsta Granny’s success, it’s not surprising to see a considerably hefty budget behind this production, framed nicely by the small but grand Richmond Theatre. The staging consists of four internally intricate cylinders which frequently rotate while the characters climb up and down the ‘chimney’ ladders inside them. Although feasibly impressive and efficient from a stage-smith’s point of view, aesthetically, the structures leave the bare stage looking painfully juxtaposing. The back screen is completely under-utilised until the end when it becomes a beautiful painted night sky adding new founded scope, much needed to offset the simple and transparent plot.

Additional expensive elements such as elaborate puppetry, inefficiently featured, and a chase between a beautifully designed car and motorbike (which is hardly seen) also fall flat and over-crowd the piece. The staging never really finds it’s feet and the actors pace the stage absent of intent, which only adds to their apparent loss in it all. Perhaps these are just growing pains that will iron themselves out during the tour.

All the cast perform with admirable gusto through a gruelling dialogue heavy script. Particularly Georgina Leonidas (Stella) who narrates every action she takes, right down to putting her shoes on. The actress makes these unnecessary lines as seamless as a professional actor can. With un-adulterated Walliams-esq style, Timothy Speyer heads up the cast as Aunt Alberta herself. As pantomime dames go, Speyer clearly has experience in flipping his voice and quick-changing from pant suit to knickerbockers, but seems never to achieve anything tenacious or unexpected with the character.

When the cast first arrives they are met with a supportive rumble of laughter and excitement. However this soon dissipates to noticeable unresponsiveness and lack of engagement from the audience only to be re-sparked by some energetic bursts of toilet humour and slapstick.

The Roald Dahl style of marketing for the show only leads to an unflattering comparison with Matilda – a hit which gains its success through expertly tailored story telling the whole family can enjoy and understand. Awful Auntie’s pantomime-style approach doesn’t respect the intelligence of children, resulting in a patronising, lengthy piece which doesn’t quite work.

Reviewed by Nicole Darvill-Batten