Travels with My Aunt: Around the World in 28 Years with Henry, Giles and Aunt Augusta Too

Herald art writer and critic, Neil Cooper, sat down with theatre director and actor Giles Havergal to discuss his world renowned adaptation of Travels with My Aunt.  Read on to find out more about the play's long association with the Citizens and why it is just as relevant today as it was in 1989.

Giles Havergal thinks it might have been the very first preview of Travels with My Aunt when he thought his new production was doomed. It was 1989, money was tight, and, necessity being the mother of invention, Havergal had opted to make his adaptation of Graham Greene's 1969 novel as economically spare as he could. On the eve of Phillip Breen's revival for the Gorbals-based institution's main stage, things may have come full circle in terms of austerity, but Travels with My Aunt remains both of its time and an evergreen masterpiece which transcends literary fads and fashions.
Travels with My Aunt, Citizens Theatre 1990 Production
“I'd just got started,” recalls Havergal during a flying visit to Glasgow for the read-through of Breen's production. “I'd just got into the aunt and I was fluttering away doing all my stuff, and I suddenly heard one of the seats in the circle go, and I thought, oh, somebody can't bear it. Actually, I discovered later it wasn't that, but at that time I thought, oh my God, I've got the whole of the play to do, and somebody's already walked out. I think it was somebody who got ill or something, because I immediately asked Front of House as soon as the show had finished, and I was so relieved, but I initially thought we had a disaster on our hands.”

This proved to be far from the case, as the speedy revival for Glasgow's year as European Capital of Culture in 1990 proved and the extraordinary journey that followed made clear. Havergal puts the responsibility for the Travels with My Aunt phenomenon squarely on Greene's shoulders.

“Looking back,” he says, “I think the way we did it was probably fairly typical of the way we did a lot of things. Graham Greene is a major literary figure, and we tended to do work by major writers, so I think something like it was going to happen sooner or later. But I just think the title was very potent in 1989. I think it was still on the shelves at Waterstones, and indeed it still is, but I think it was still known, and people wanted to see it because it was a famous title. And did Graham Greene say it was his favourite book? Which is rather interesting. But also, I think it sold much better than most of his books. It really was a best-seller, so when you put the title up there, that was the appeal. It was a famous story which people liked.”

Greene's book charts the belated getting of wisdom of retired bank manager Henry Pulling after he is taken under the wing of his Aunt Augusta, who leads Henry astray on a series of international escapades which open him up to a world of possibilities beyond the purely geographic. In normal circumstances, putting Greene's roll call of adventurers, spies and exotic agents of all kinds onstage would have been out of reach to all but the most extravagantly inclined productions. Even the Citz' trademark penchant for large-cast classics would not have been able to accommodate such an epic of subverted English suburban mores.

Travels with My Aunt, Citizens Theatre 1990 Production

Havergal's option was to stage it with a cast of just four actors, all clad in identical suits, who would proceed to play all the parts, doubling up as Henry as they went. With the quartet also acting as the story's narrators, Havergal even cast himself in his own production alongside Citz stalwarts Patrick Hannaway and Derwent Watson, with Christopher Gee completing the quartet. It was, as Havergal says, “the biggest vanity project that ever was, to adapt it, direct it and play the two leads in it. I was very keen as well that the principle character of Henry Pulling should be played by all of us, and that it should be very carefully divvied up between us. It was tremendous fun to play, and of course it meant a lot having three really marvellous actors, who were so good in it.”

Such a consciously theatrical approach that makes clear the story's artifice from the off is fairly commonplace these days for stage adaptations. Back then, a more traditionally naturalistic rendering of literary wares was more the done thing in terms of form. Or at least that was the case on the main-stages of British repertory theatres. As Havergal had proven ever since he began running the Gorbals-based emporium in 1969, the same year Travels with My Aunt was published, and shortly afterwards with his co-directors Robert David MacDonald and Philip Prowse, the Citz was no ordinary rep.

“We were very short of money,” Havergal says, “and I think it was even mooted at one point that it should be a one-man show, which is obviously the cheapest thing you can possibly do, with me going on wearing one of my own suits. Then it grew slightly from that. I'd read the book, and I liked it very much, and when it came up, I was excited by the idea of adapting it. It's a long time ago to remember, but I was."

“A lot of people have said to me that I opened things up for them to do their adaptations of various things, which is nice, though I think it was very much in the air at the time too, to do that very pared down thing, and just let the dialogue tell the actual story.”

From such modest ambitions of a very Citizens take on notions of poor theatre, in which small casts double up like billy-o, few could have predicted the life that Havergal's version of Travels with My Aunt would embark on beyond its home turf. In terms of adventure, Havergal's construction has crossed borders and boundaries on a par with Henry and Aunt Augusta's own trans-continental leap. 

“It was a huge success immediately,” says Havergal of his original production, which he co-directed with the Citz' then associate director Jon Pope. “For some bizarre reason, we did it right at the end of the autumn season, before the pantomime, and we only played it for a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and one week, and it was very successful. I remember that there was tremendous advance ticket sales for it before people knew at all how I was going to do it, and then we brought it back the following spring for a proper run. It was very exciting, those first few performances. Would the public wear it? Would they wear a man in a suit being Aunt Augusta?”

While its initial run went like a fair, with future Still Game star Gavin Mitchell stepping in for an otherwise engaged Christopher Gee, it was during its 1990 revival that the show really took flight.

“It had a whole other life,” says Havergal, “because we did it the two times here, and then we took it to the Lyric Hammersmith for two weeks, and then, of course it had its West End run, and then New York and all that. Then we did it again here in 1996.”

In 1993, following its West End run, Travels with My Aunt won two Olivier awards, one for Best Entertainment, and the other for actor Simon Cadell for Best Comedy Performance. The first saw Havergal's show win over competition that included comic performer and 'living cartoon' Ennio Marchetto, as well as productions of The Blue Angel and The Invisible Man. Cadell's competition included Sara Crowe in a production of Hay Fever, Guy Henry in The Alchemist and Robert Lindsay in Cyrano de Bergerac. Two years later, the show travelled to New York, where it opened off-Broadway with a cast that included British comic stalwart Jim Dale. In 2015, a Broadway revival was directed by Jonathan Silverstein.

Havergal's rendering of Travels with My Aunt wasn't the first adaptation of Greene's book. In 1972,  George Cukor directed a Jay Presson Allen scripted film version starring Maggie Smith as Aunt Augusta and Alec McCowen as Henry.  A radio version by comedy writer Rene Basilico starred veteran actor Charles Kay and Dame Hilda Bracket, performer George Logan's half of cross-dressing double act Hinge and Bracket, as Aunt Augusta.

More recently, a Havergal approved fifty minute one-act version was presented by the Backwell Playhouse Theatre Company as an entry to the 2015 Avon Association of Art One Act Play Festival, where it won the Best Play award. In 2016, a new musical version of Greene's novel opened at Chichester Festival Theatre. With a book by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman and music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, Patricia Hodge starred as Aunt Augusta.

Travels with My Aunt, Citizens Theatre 1990 Production

It is Havergal's version, however, which remains the definitive adaptation, its over-riding playfulness tapping into Greene's inherent sense of serious fun like no other before or since. Recent productions in such quintessentially English towns such as Windsor and Hornchurch have continued the play's popular appeal in places where one suspects closet Henry Pullings and would-be Aunt Augustas are hiding in plain sight among the audience. If Havergal's version risks giving Greene's cross-generational fan-base more than they bargained for, there is enough familiarity there for them not to feel alienated by the experience.

“Henry Pulling is the most archetypal Graham Greene character,” says Havergal. “He's got all the Catholic thing and the repressed sexuality and all that going on, so if you are a Greenite you actually spend the evening with four archetypal Graham Greene characters. I think that is possibly some of the appeal, because you never feel like you're being shortchanged. The full range of the Greene humour is there, and so is the regret and nostalgia and all those things.”

For both Havergal and Breen's new production of Travels with My Aunt, however, nostalgia isn't on the agenda as much as it might be for some who saw the original production.

2017 Travels with My Aunt Cast (L-R): Joshua Richards, Ewan Somers, Iain Redford, Tony Cownie

“It's been nearly thirty years now since we first did it,” says Havergal. “It's incredible, really, but there we are. It was exciting to do that, and it's interesting how, in retrospect, people remember it. When it was done in Pitlochry, they did it in very much the same way as we did, with the suits and everything, and it was very good. One of the actors told me that, after the show, a woman in the audience went up to them and said, of course, I saw it at the Citizens, but I really miss the costumes. He said, oh, I also saw the production at the Citizens, and there weren't any costumes, they did it just like us. They just wore suits. And the woman said, no, no, I can remember the aunt wearing the long grey dress and the toque.... It's fascinating, isn't it, what people see?”

Author: Neil Cooper
Travels With My Aunt, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, May 3-20