Walking out of Awful Auntie at Venue Cymru last week, I had the same mixed feelings as I did with Gangsta Granny last year. David Walliams’ books, as you’d expect from the Little Britain co-creator, contain an abundance of potty humour. And the stage productions, while deftly put together by the superb Birmingham Stage Company, do exactly the same. This only grates on me because there’s a fair amount of warmth and heart in these tales, and – at the risk of sounding pompous – a more sophisticated humour would be a better fit.
But I can picture it now: Walliams is typing away, his Dahl-style prose carrying the quirky story along nicely, when his heartbeat becomes irregular. These palpitations lead to a feeling of dread in his stomach, as his face turns sheet white. Something isn’t right. He’s on his way to the sink to splash his face with cold water when it dawns on him – of course… there hasn’t been a fart joke for over three pages. He rushes back to his laptop, makes a character expel some gas, chuckles to himself, and all is well in the world of Walliams.
I’m being a bit harsh. Like I said, Birmingham Stage Company’s adaptation of Awful Auntie has a healthy amount of warmth and quirkiness, and it never shies away from darker themes. The year is 1933; Stella Saxby, the twelve-year-old daughter of Lord and Lady Saxby, wakes up in her manor house to find out her parents have died in a mysterious car accident. The bearer of this bad news is Stella’s Aunt Alberta, who, we soon find out, is trying to rob Stella of her inheritance. Awful Auntie indeed.
Stella is played by Georgina Leonidas (Katie Bell in the Harry Potter series), who acts with a great deal of energy. At twenty-eight she plays the sceptical and adventurous twelve-year-old with the necessary mix curiosity and naivety, but never becomes condescending, or anything like a caricature of a child. She never puts on a childlike voice, unlike Ashley Cousins who plays Soot, the resident ghost of the manor house. Cousins (twenty-one) played the eleven-year-old protagonist in Gangsta Granny last year, and he used the same voice in that. It’s a nasally squeak; the sort of voice a male kid’s TV presenter puts on when they’re reading dialogue between two children in a storybook. It’s unnerving and creepy; he’s a good actor and doesn’t need to do it to play a kid. Unless it’s his real voice. In which case, sorry Ashley.
Richard James drag queens it up to play Aunt Alberta, so in the scene in which Alberta disguises herself as a man it’s pretty authentic. He does everything that is necessary – but I imagine Walliams would’ve loved to do this role himself. My favourite character is Wagner the owl, controlled by puppeteer Roberta Bellekom, who, nonchalant and stone-faced, runs on with Wagner whenever he makes an appearance. She brings her owl puppet to life, making it endearing, cheeky and – as owls tend to be – wise.
The set, designed by Jacqueline Trousdale, is a real visual spectacle. It consists of four cylinders (which often spin to show different sides) that represent the turrets of Saxby hall. As Stella and Soot explore the great house, crawling through chimneys to different floors and rooms, we get a real sense of adventure. As they split up and look for clues, you find your inner child awakening, akin to getting lost in the words of Dahl and Rowling. It’s just such a shame when one of them breaks the spell by farting and fanning their behind.
You should have more faith in today’s youth, David Walliams; they can laugh at things other than flatulence. I mean, I can’t exactly talk because I giggled at Jackass all through my teens, but let’s give these kids a more charming and sophisticated theatrical experience. Before the grey world of adulthood engulfs them, and their only escape is laughing at farts.