REVIEW: Travels With My Aunt.

Minerva Theatre, Chichester.

WHEN your life consists of early retirement from the bank with just your dahlias to keep you company, who wouldn’t want to meet a long-lost aunt who offers travel, excitement and the hint of romance somewhere along the way?

Certainly dull, content, grey Henry Pulling doesn’t. But when his mother’s ashes are stolen to be replaced with cannabis and the police close in, Henry finds himself sucked into the dangerous world of Aunt Augusta as the pair criss-cross the globe in search of the elusive and glamorous Mr Visconti.

Patricia Hodge plays Aunt Augusta, Steven Pacey her beige nephew Henry who she meets for the first time at her sister’s funeral in this stunning musical adaptation of Graham Greene’s famous novel.

With a new book by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, and lyrics by Anthony Drewe set to music by George Stiles, Travels is a marvellous curtain-opener for this year’s Chichester Festival season.

Pacey, witty, stylish, the work bursts onto the imaginative space created at the Minerva with as much outrageous confidence as Augusta herself.

Of the two main characters, it is Henry who is the most sympathetic. Pacey is a convincing suburban hermit who admits to finding funerals exciting, even his own mother’s. His strong singing voice carries many of the new numbers: Tending My Dahlias, A Feeling I Call Home, Comfort in the Familiar. As the reluctant adventurer struggles to quit the new life his aunt has enveloped him in, Stiles and Drewe’s songs lay bare his inner battle whether to stay or go.

Hodge is a feisty Aunt Augusta, wonderfully overbearing and endearingly frustrating in her confidence. Like Henry, the audience is asked to at once admire and be wary of her reckless pursuit of passion- or should that be her passionate pursuit of the reckless? Although her singing voice is not her greatest strength, Hodge exudes confidence when accompanied by Pacey or the ensemble. In The Eyes of Italian men is fabulous, Travel a catchy theme throughout, and The Art of Survival a hoot. Her best solo performance comes in the opening number Life’s Too Short.

Hugh Maynard as Wordsworth and Haley Flaherty as lost soul Tooley provide extremely strong support as the inspired set takes the audience from the brothels of Paris to the prison cells of Istanbul and on to the South American Jungle where the mysterious Mr Visconti may finally debut.

A wonderfully energetic ensemble ensure the pace never falters.

Travels is directed by Christopher Luscombe who is also directing the festival’s Shakespeare double-header later in the season: Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing. On this performance I recommend securing tickets for all three now.

Travel With My Aunt runs until June 4.