David Walliams’ Awful Auntie tours the UK, returning to The Alhambra where Leo Owen caught the show

Just in time for the start of the school holidays, the BSC’s (Birmingham Stage Company) adaptation seems virtually unaltered since its last major tour. Opening with a Historic Houses of Britain reel from 1933 projected onto a sheet, adapter and Co-Director, Neal Foster, sets the scene. One of the lesser-known houses mentioned in the documentary is the ancestral home of Walliams’ protagonist, Stella. Black and white footage of her frolicking with family in the grounds kickstarts the action as the audience peep inside Saxby Hall.

Stella (Annie Cordoni) wakes after being in a coma for three months to be told by her Aunt Alberta (Neal Foster) that her parents are dead and all her bones broken. Appraising her state, Stella starts to doubt her Aunt’s story when she realises she’s quite mobile and encounters a ghost called Soot (Matthew Allen). Soon, she’s channelling Sherlock Holmes to investigate her parents’ fatal car crash and Soot’s tragic demise.

Jacqueline Trousdale’s set is impressive from the get-go, seamlessly shifting, revolving and opening up to allow the action to fluidly move between interior and exterior. Her multi-floored stone set piece boasts twisting steps, hatches and even a rooftop cage, allowing the audience to almost follow Stella in real-time as Alberta hunts her down, appropriately attired in purple deerstalker garb.

Foster utilises puppets to tell Walliams’ tale, including mini replicas of characters controlled by their coordinating actors to try to give a sense of the scale of the house. While this works for some of the scenes, the puppet car and moped feel like overkill. Alberta’s henchbird, Wagner (Emily Essery), a Great Bavarian Mountain Owl, is more nuanced as a central redemptive character.

Ilkley Gazette: Stella and Alberta in Awful AuntieStella and Alberta in Awful Auntie (Image: Mark Douet)

With the exception of Stella who acts as a strong positive role model, Walliams’ characters are all extreme caricatures, very obviously inspired by his literary hero, Roald Dahl. While Stella is clearly modelled on Matilda, Alberta is a Trunchbull like character, injected with panto villain qualities by Foster. Ex-chimney-sweep Soot spouts rhyming slang while the butler, Gibbon (Zain Abrahams), is clearly beyond being of service, bringing surreal humour to proceedings as he helpfully walks a leashed tiger rug and mows a carpet.

Walliams’ humour is slapstick and puerile, delighting his target audience with tiddlywinks moves like “Knicker Knocker Glory”, a maggot eating limping detective and a revenge plan including booby traps and classic practical jokes like placing a transparent splashback inside a toilet. That said, he doesn’t shy away from the dark too with an electrocution chamber and a surprisingly violent rather drawn-out final showdown. Among all this, there’s heart and a moral message too as Stella reflects “Whether you grow up in a palace or a workhouse, we’re all really the same.”

While the BSC’s Awful Auntie is undoubtedly a lively show successfully eliciting giggles aplenty, its story and characters feel less accomplished than other Walliams’ creations. However, fans of the book, won’t be disappointed as Trousdale’s design certainly immerses viewers in Stella’s world.

Awful Auntie showed at The Alhambra May 23rd-25th before continuing its tour.