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Auntie and Me

Why are you putting on make-up? Why don't you let the mortician do that?.
-- Kemp
Canadian playwright Morris Panych's Auntie and Me was a big hit on the Fringe at the Edinburgh festival last year and comes into London's West End with its star, Alan Davies, the popular comedian and actor known to television viewers for his role as Jonathan Creek. As Marcia Warren, who played the part of the aunt in Edinburgh, is committed to the revival next month of Arsenic and Old Lace, Margaret Tyzack takes over. It is a light evening, this two handed comedy, with dark humour based on the imminent death of the old lady and her nephew's bizarre openness in discussing morbid details.

Kemp (Alan Davies) has responded to a letter written by his Aunt Grace (Margaret Tyzack) to say that she is old and dying. He is her last known relative. At first he misread her writing and thought the letter said that she was "yodelling" not old and dying. Not having seen his aunt for the last thirty years, there is little to bond these two, the old lady and the bank clerk who has given up his job to travel across the country to tend to his aunt. He sets up house with his aunt for the duration of her dying which turns out not to be as imminent as all that. In fact he is still there a year and a half later with auntie alive and well.

In the first few days he is measuring her out for her coffin, planning the funeral music and arranging the disposal of her property in an almost cold hearted, matter of fact way. "Let's not talk about anything depressing? Do you want to be cremated?" The first half is dominated by these one liners from Kemp's monologue, funny and cruel if you were to take them seriously. He builds a disastrous euthanasia machine. Well, only disastrous in that it fails to despatch his aunt and instead injures him! By the end of the play he has, without trying, become very fond of the old lady and plans a trip with her to France. Kemp has also changed into a nicer human being. He is a bit of an odd ball character. His home life seems to have been marred by his eccentric mother dressing him up in frocks due to her wanting to give birth not to a boy, but to a girl. His father was a manic-depressive magician who destroyed every illusion and who was given to suicidally digging his own grave.

Alan Davies holds the stage for all of the ninety minutes with not a word from his aunt for most of the first hour. He is superb, quirky but obviously socially inept, a loner who allows the audience to laugh, but never betraying that he is kidding. At one point he hangs out his laundry, five sets of identical pink shirts, brown trousers and black socks in a business-like fashion. Davies has that zany quality as he recounts his childhood and unconventional family life to his aunt. Maybe that comes of being brought up by a mother whose hands were "always pretty full . . . what with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of scotch in the other!" Margaret Tyzack, like the old hand she is, conveys many an emotion as the enigmatic auntie, whether eating interminable Butterscotch puddings or clicking the knitting needles with silent aside looks to the audience.

Anna Mackmin directs so that the whole is pacy and, despite the same joke being repeated in different forms, it does not dull the way one handers often can. The set is the depressing flowered and peeling wallpaper of Auntie's bedsit, dominated by her bed, her knitting and the window on the neighbours. The passage of time is conveyed with black outs and the falling of autumn leaves or snow or lighting changes like a series of cartoon clips.

Auntie and Me is not an important new play but it is a thoroughly enjoyable evening and a promising West End acting start for Alan Davies who will surely move on to greater plays. Auntie and Me has a superb twist to the plot which wild horses will not drag out of me.

Auntie and Me
Written by Morris Panych
Directed by Anna Mackmin

Starring: Alan Davies
With: Margaret Tyzack
Designer: Hayden Griffin
Lighting Designer: Andy Phillips
Sound: Paul Arditti
Running time: One hour thirty minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7369 1736
Booking to 26th April 2003
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 15th January 2003 Performance at the Wyndhams Theatre Charing Cross Road London WC2 (Tube Station: Leicester Square)

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