An all too short evening - but one to cheer about

Review by Paul Nelson

HAVING regularly attended the theatre with an old friend, at least once a week, I cannot remember a time when we were both so in complete accord over a play as we were over Auntie and Me at Wyndham's Theatre.

The play's construction is unlike any either of us has seen in the heart of London. For good or bad it runs like a silent film, short unspoken scenes, sometimes one line like a subtitle, and then a fade or blackout.

The sense of unreality is also conveyed by the characters, Kemp and Grace. He babbles on, constantly putting his foot into matters best left unsaid, she for the most part taciturn.

This mosaic quality of the play, and quality it decidedly is, eventually builds up through immensely funny comedy moments, into a very moving portrayal of a relationship neither character expected. The audience certainly wasn't expecting it.

Kemp takes a few days off from his job at the bank in order to look after the details of the expected funeral of his aunt and only remaining relative.

Unfortunately, the old lady won't die and the few days stretch into weeks and finally to well over a year.

Whiling away the time, staring out of the window to make comments about the kids in the street, the nosey lady in the window opposite and meanwhile cooking Grace's meals and generally looking after her, the boredom of nothing happening begins to get to him.

He therefore begins to devise methods to hasten her end. He almost succeeds with poison, but bottles out of it at the last minute, suffocating her with a pillow, strangling her with the washing line, and, best of all, by inventing a contraption which she can operate herself. Mounted on a supermarket trolley is a Heath Robinson device. She can choose to bash out her brains with a lever, or electrocute herself at the flick of a switch.

My companion and I, along with the rest of the audience, beheld all these methods with unholy delight, accompanying each new wheeze with hoots of surprising and spontaneous laughter.

The laughter was surprising in that the play, by nature of its disjointed scenes, never manages to flow along. Each scene holds the attention and entertains, but the whole seems not to gel into what can best be described as a really satisfying evening at the theatre.

Kemp is played with a retiring charm by Alan Davies. Better known as a stand-up comedian than as an actor, he acquits himself very well indeed. He has a natural timing (I say natural, it may have taken years to perfect but it appears to be casual) and an almost sheepish way of ingratiating himself into the favour of the audience. He controls his audience's laughter with a style not often seen.

Grace, on the other hand, with hardly a line during the first hour, indeed a year has passed before she utters and then it is "Merry Christmas", as played by the incomparable Margaret Tyzack wins the day. She is perfect. Resigned to her fate, used to carers, knitting a multi-coloured sweater and endlessly eating butterscotch puddings, she watches Kemp with a mixture of bewilderment and interest.

The denouement of the final twist in the plot is so startling and funny that the laughter must surely have been heard above the traffic outside the theatre. Such a crack of long and loud laughter is rare these days. It stopped the play, paralysed the audience and I believe surprised the cast.

Certainly at the curtain call they both wore a mixed expression of disbelief at their reception and genuine delight at the effect they had created in the theatre.

The play is also graced with an excellent angled setting (Hayden Griffin) and is magically and frenetically lit (Andy Phillips).

It is an all too short evening, but what a memorable one with regard to performances. Don't be one to hear about it, be one to cheer about it.

Auntie & Me by Morris Panych, Directed by Anna Mackmin, Designed by Hayden Griffin, Lighting by Andy Phillips, Sound by Paul Arditti presented by Karl Sydow, David Johnson (for Massive Stage and Screen Ltd) and Matthew Gale at Wyndham's Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2. Tickets 020 7369 1736