I thought I’d read Travels with My Aunt at school. But thanks to a two-hour sidetrack through the glorious website We Can Read It For You Wholesale I find (a) I’m confusing it with Our Man in Havana, Greene’s other light comic globetrotting novel with a geopolitical view gleaned from his years as a junior agent at MI6 and (b) I may never need to read an actual book again.

Like Henry Wormold, the vacuum-cleaner salesman at the centre of Our Man in Havana and so memorably portrayed by Alec Guinness in the oft-repeated movie, retired bank manager Henry Pulling is a dahlia-growing suburbanite with very limited experience of “the world”. At his mother’s funeral, he is buttonholed by his picaresque Aunt Augusta, a wryly sardonic dowager who hasn’t seen him since his christening but conscripts him for a series of overseas trips, which transplant Henry from tending his tubers to Paris, Istanbul, Buenos Aires and eventually Paraguay where materteral (a word I’m sure Greene would have enjoyed – it is the feminine equivalent of “avuncular”) influence on his starchy character finally permeates and he marries the sixteen-year-old daughter of the chief of police.

It can’t be a coincidence that Augusta has the same Christian name as Wilde’s formidable Lady Bracknell, although her moral compass is set to the exact opposite as Henry finds out through his journeys – his mother’s funerary urn is commandeered as a container for smuggled marijuana, a briefcase masks some nifty money laundering on the Orient Express, and it becomes clear that Aunt’s acquaintances include Nazi war criminals, international art thieves and high-octane dabblers in revolutionary politics.

The same three very fine actors swap all of the roles throughout, although there’s gravitation: David Bamber carries most of Henry’s scenes, Ian Mitchell mostly impersonates Wordsworth, Aunt’s devoted well-endowed Sierra Leonean lover and hit man, and the grande dame herself is played mostly by the marvellous Jonathan Hyde, constantly clutching at an imaginary pearl choker and gargling the vowels with a rich and tremulous timbre. I wondered if he’d been inspired by the BBC Radio 4 version in which Aunt was voiced by Dame Hilda Bracket.

Wisely ignoring any influence of the dire 1972 George Cukor movie in which Maggie Smith, 37 and at the height of her campy vampishness, played the septuagenarian Augusta, director Christopher Luscombe has stuck with the original stage production and in fact doesn’t move things on much from the revival at Wyndham’s in the early 90s when William Gaunt took David Bamber’s role and Aunt was in the equally satirical hands of John Wells. Even though Jonathan Hyde is quite, quite outstanding, it’s tempting to wonder whether the piece could be further enlivened if a great comic actress, including Dame Maggie of Downton, were allowed to play the Aunt.

The set is superb: Hornby enthusiasts must be creaming themselves as Colin Falconer has detailed an authentic 1960s railway station complete with illuminated destination indicator and a left luggage store from which Gregory Gudgeon darts as a sort of stage manager ferrying props and impersonating supernumary characters with great flair. But it’s also anchoring, and having seen Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter break free from its station setting, I wondered how much more a company like that could have made of this play.

Ultimately you’re left with the three middle-aged actor chappies, first in matching grey suits with red knitwear and, when the production moves to the tropics after the interval, in cream linen suits and Panama hats (how original) and there are leaves on the line as the narrative becomes repetitive and a tad predictable – the journey feels overly-long as though the train, and the production, are awaiting electrification.

Date reviewed: Wednesday 8th May 2013
Image © Catherine Ashmore

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.