Book now for a thoroughly enjoyable trip

Review by David Munro

ANY invitation to a trip to Graham Greene-land is well worth considering and, in the case of Travels with my Aunt at Richmond Theatre, something, which must be accepted and cannot be missed.

Based on a novel which he wrote 'for fun', it deals with the problems of a 'Candide'-like young banker, who is taken over by the eponymous Aunt at his mother's funeral and swept by her into a strange new world of intrigue and mystery.

Like all Graham Greene plots, fun has its black undertones and this piece, for all its wry humour, manages to incorporate murder, smuggling, spying and Nazis into the plot, while at the same time maintaining an endearing atmosphere of inconsequence.

The adaptation, by Giles Havergal, encapsulates the plot neatly and presents the actors with a challenge, which in my view few would wish to take up.

Apart from the eponymous Aunt, the rest of the cast have to adopt each other's roles and portray a variety of characters without the help of costume or make-up.

When this task is assigned to four actors, as it is here, the sheer magnitude of the technical difficulty in differentiating the characters seems overwhelming. Even the player of the Aunt has to step outside his/her role (all the characters are played by males) and assume the role of her nephew from time to time.

The programme refers to a London production, which I must confess passed me by. I do recall a film with Maggie Smith (substituting for Katherine Hepburn), Robert Stephens and Alec McCowen in the Seventies, which also failed to make any impression on me. However, last night was an occasion I shall not forget in a long time. For great and unadulterated 'theatre' it took the palm.

The four actors - Clive Francis (mainly as the Aunt), Gary Wilmot and Jeffrey Holland, as the nephew, playing, in addition, other key characters, male and female, and with Andrew Greenough bringing up the rear as sundry minor characters - turned the evening into a tour de force (one wonders with that talent, why they are forced to tour!).

The sheer professionalism was breathtaking. They slipped in and out of character in a line, believably, and without upsetting the pace of the scene. To steal a quote from Christopher Fry, 'they coruscated on thin ice' without once losing their foothold.

There was no confusion, they kept the plot lines (for what they were) clear and coherent and created, for this critic at least, an evening of utter theatrical magic.

And all this on a virtual empty stage, four chairs utilised as airline or esplanade seats, a mailbox and doors; a blank canvas upon which they drew a brilliant series of characters.

Clive Francis, as the Aunt, created the illusion of an old woman by a twist of the body and the turn of the head and one believed in it. Perhaps the only criticism I might put forward is that he made the Aunt a little too old, making her lasciviousness and lust a little unbelievable (the book portrays her as a raunchy woman but not that old). This is, I would hasten to add, a minor flaw and not one which detracts from the enjoyment of the evening.

Gary Wilmot and Jeffrey Holland had a chameleon-like ability to shed their personality and adopt whatever the character they were required to portray and these were legion. Each one was individual and the fact that they wore the same costume of suits and bowler hats (in the first act, at any rate) did not seem to matter. This was comedy acting of the first water and the like of which is seldom seen nowadays.

It is invidious to make comparisons and I do not think there is any justification in doing so here. This was a shining example of teamwork, in which three great comedians combined to create an amusing and cohesive whole to a diverse and difficult play.

'No fuss, no feuds, no egos' seem to be the key words of a wholly satisfactory and entirely enjoyable evening. Grab a ticket - you won't regret it.

Travels With My Aunt, written by Giles Havergal and directed by Richard Baron. Lighting Design by Ken Harrison, Sound by Jon Beales, and Design by Ken Harrison. WITH: Gary Wilmot, Clive Francis, Jeffrey Holland and Andrew Greenough. Richmond Theatre, The Green, Richmond, Surrey. Box Office: 020 8940 0088