The first thing you notice about Giles Havergal’s masterful adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1969 novel – first seen at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre in 1989 – is the palpable lack of an aunt.
Four men line the stage, dressed in identical suits: they are four versions of Henry Pulling, the retired bank manager with a passion for dahlias, whose Aunt Augusta changes his life forever having only swept into it at his mother’s funeral. But they will also be called on to play the book’s many other colourful characters: from Wordsworth, Augusta’s live-in African ‘friend’, to an Irish wolfhound owned by the wife of a Nazi general – and of course, the inimitable Augusta herself.
This set-up takes a bit of getting used to – the first five minutes feel a little like a drama-school masterclass in improvisation – but ultimately, it proves an ingenious ploy, and one that this experienced cast carries out with aplomb. Jonathan Hyde is hysterical as Augusta, his hand continually fluttering to his neck, his imperious manner strongly reminiscent of Maggie Smith in ‘Downton Abbey’ (Smith in fact played Augusta in the 1972 film adaptation).
David Bamber deserves special mention too for convincingly playing a doe-eyed teenage hippy; while Iain Mitchell is hilarious as Wordsworth and Mr Visconti, Augusta’s criminal Italian lover. Gregory Gudgeon, though used less, almost brings the house down as the aforementioned wolfhound.
Played out on the barest of sets, Christopher Luscombe’s production is wonderfully theatrical – chairs become taxis, letterboxes hover in the air – and highly entertaining, doing full justice to Greene’s comic novel: a book that reminds us that, ultimately,§ a life full of adventure is always preferable to one that is dull, safe, and devoted to the cultivation of dahlias.