Having been very impressed with Birmingham Stage Company’s production of Gangsta Granny last year, I was keen to see if they could repeat their success with Awful Auntie, another of David Walliams’ entertaining children’s books. Walliams has already established himself as one of the greatest children’s authors of this generation, and his work is ripe for retelling on both stage and screen. As adapter and director, Neal Foster has brought the pages of the book to life beautifully in a show that entertains adults and children alike.
Waking up from a coma, the young Stella Saxby discovers both of her parents have been killed in a tragic accident and she’s left in the care of her awful Aunt Alberta. But was it really an accident or does Aunt Alberta know more than she’s letting on? Awful Auntie doesn’t dumb things down for its young target audience; there’s talk of death, murder, and torture all presented without ceremony; Walliams- like Roald Dahl before him- knows and understands that children are far more robust than we give them credit for. Foster has also carried this through to the stage and while the show is jam-packed with humour, there’s also some scenes that will shock, but not disturb or upset, young children.
There were so many highlights that it’s hard to know where to start, but I feel the set designer, Jacqueline Trousdale, must get a special mention for designing such a brilliantly magical and very practical set. It’s not an easy feat, to recreate a stately manor home and have scenes taking place in different rooms throughout the house, but with five revolving set pieces, it’s done seamlessly, and watching two of the characters actually climbing up and down the chimney chute was great.
The actors and puppeteers were all fabulous; a small cast of 5 fill the Hippodrome stage and the energy never drops for a minute. Admittedly, there were small mistakes, such as the central character being referred to as Sarah instead of Stella a couple of times, and the puppetry could have been a little smoother on occasion, but my 9-year-old certainly didn’t notice because he was far too enthralled with the overall show.
Timothy Speyer was simply wonderful as Awful Aunt Alberta. The voice, the posture, the movements, the character; everything was just the right mix of pantomime dame, villain, and caricature and both my son and I completely loved every scene he was in. A special mention, too, to Richard James, who made us all laugh every time he appeared as the bumbling butler, Gibbon. His comedic moments were inspired, and getting him to change set in character (such as wheeling a bed off stage into the garden) was ingenious.
In short, if you happen to see Birmingham Stage Company are on tour near you, go and see them with the small people in your life. Both adults and kids are guaranteed plenty of laughs and a memorable and entertaining show.