David Walliams is one of the UK’s best selling children’s authors and has a hugely popular series of children’s books including The Boy in the Dress and Mr Stick. Awful Auntie is his seventh novel and was the biggest selling children’s book of 2014. It is the second of his works to be adapted and directed by Neal Foster from the Birmingham Stage Company, who also produced a remarkably successful 2015 stage version of Walliams Gangsta Granny.
Walliams has always quoted Roald Dahl as one of his major influences as a writer, and Awful Auntie is in decidedly Dahl-ian territory with Aunt Alberta having villainous similarities to Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull. Also, like the stage production of Matilda, Aunt Alberta in Awful Auntie is played by a man.
The play, like the book is set in December 1933.Three months after leaving for London with her parents 12-year-old Lady Stella Saxby, heir to the Saxby empire, wakes from a coma to discover that she has survived the car accident that killed her parents Lord and Lady Saxby. Watching over her (with her nasty hench-bird Wagner) is her awful Auntie Alberta who is conniving to get her greedy hands on Stella’s inheritance. Aunt Alberta has no moral compass (she chose to fight on the German side in World War I merely because she preferred their uniforms), and is only keeping Stella alive until she gets the deeds to the ancient Saxby Hall. When her auntie locks the heiress in the coal cellar, Stella meets friendly ghost Soot, a chimney sweep, and together they play detective to discover the real truth behind the death of Stella’s parents, and try to thwart Aunt Alberta’s evil plan.
Dramatically Foster’s book to stage adaptation sometimes struggles to hit it’s mark. It grapples to take off and has a rather flat first half. However, things pick up after the interval with attempted escapes, madcap chases and a very angry owl. Georgina Leonidas plays an undaunted Stella Saxby, while Ashley Cousins is endearing as the ghostly chimney sweep Soot.
Richard James is formidable as Aunt Alberta, and screeches his way through the show with a high pitched voice that wouldn’t go amiss in a Monty Python sketch. Jaqueline Trousdale’s fabulously inventive set of four revolving cylinders almost become central characters themselves as they twist and turn around the stage allowing the actors to manically chase each other about the haunted house. Nick Sagar’s comedy Hammer Horror sound design includes creaky steps and unearthly noises which add to the spooky atmosphere of Saxby Hall.
Despite some flaws, judging from the giggles to the abundance of fart and toilet gags, and the lively reaction to the battle between good and evil, for its target audience Awful Auntie is undoubtedly a winner.