Travels With My Aunt,
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow,
Until May 20
The 306: Day,
Seen at Station Hotel, Perth;
touring until June 3
Reviewed by Mark Brown
In 1989 the Citizens Theatre presented a highly-acclaimed staging of Graham Greene’s 1969 novel Travels With My Aunt. Adapted by the theatre’s (already by then) legendary artistic director Giles Havergal (who also featured in the four-man cast), the piece delighted audiences with its tongue-in-cheek re-telling of the story of Henry Pulling, a retired London bank manager turned unlikely global adventurer.
The play is revived now under the fine directorship of Phillip Breen, a rightly celebrated associate artist of the Citz. Retaining the piece’s all-male line-up, its glorious, satirical wit and its gently subversive, camp aesthetic, it feels, simultaneously, like a richly-deserved homage to Havergal and the most vibrant production currently appearing on the Scottish stage.
Attired in, by turns, the sombre black suite required by Pulling’s mother’s funeral and the lighter garb demanded by South America (but always with a red dhalia, our protagonist’s favourite flower, in their buttonholes), Breen’s outstanding cast bring us the full panoply of Greene’s characters. Whether it is outrageous and irrepressible Aunt Augusta or her devoted and decent lover Wordsworth (an African cannabis dealer some years her junior), the piece is unerring in its presentation of (that wonderful paradox) the three-dimensional caricature.
Thanks to Aunt Augusta, these larger-than-life characters are engaged in a world in which illicit sex, espionage and highly improbable coincidences intermingle as readily as cigarette smoke and the smell of expensive, smuggled whisky. As we traverse the planet, including, inevitably, a journey on the Orient Express, we find the metrosexuality and radical politics of the Sixties seeping out of the most unlikely of figures (such as the daughter of a CIA agent).
This is a genuine ensemble piece, in which veteran actors Tony Cownie, Ian Redford and Joshua Richards (who is particularly memorable as Wordsworth) are assisted impressively by their younger colleague Ewan Somers. All-in-all, a compellingly told, perfectly paced and gorgeously humorous evening’s theatre.
The same cannot quite be said of The 306: Day, the second part in the National Theatre of Scotland’s First World War trilogy. The play is based, like its predecessor (Dawn) upon the true story of British soldiers executed for cowardice, but since pardoned on the obvious grounds that their mental health had been shattered by the horrors of war.
Co-produced with Perth Theatre (which is currently closed for refurbishment) and Stellar Quines (Scotland’s women’s theatre company), the show opened its tour at the Station Hotel, Perth; in which, it must be said, the noise-bleed from the restaurant into the performance space was a regular distraction. Set to play in civic halls throughout Scotland, Oliver Emanuel’s drama focuses on women working in a Glasgow munitions factory.
Nellie, a leading activist in the Women’s Peace Crusade, has a husband in prison as a conscientious objector. Gertrude’s husband, Harry, is among those shot for desertion.
The ensuing tale unfolds in an uneasy combination of almost naive, soap opera-style dialogue, expository, often polemical song and self-consciously emotive live music (played on piano and violin by the Red Note Ensemble). The recurrence of disagreements which lead to melodramatic fist fights (one almost expects a character from Eastenders to run in shouting, “leave it, she’s not wurf it!”) does Emanuel no credit at all.
The story of the Women’s Peace Crusade and other socialist and pacifist opponents of the Great War is one which demands to be told. Whether, in 2017, it is best expressed in the direct, naturalistic style of 1930s Scottish playwright Joe Corrie is another matter. More, even, than its predecessor, The 306: Day, is in danger of patronising its audience.
For tour details for The 306: Day, visit: nationaltheatrescotland.com
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 14, 2017
© Mark Brown