Auntie and Me, Wyndham's Theatre, London

Why don't you just drop dead?

By Paul Taylor
Monday 20 January 2003 01:00

Why don't old folk just do the decent thing and die? Why do they malinger malevolently, preventing you from getting your hands on the money that would solve the pressing problem of your children's university fees – not to mention the galloping alimony – and give you that bit of financial slack that, God knows, you damn well deserve? If they don't want to leave a legacy of bitterness behind them with their lolly, shouldn't the wrinkly brigade consent to croak and cough up while the going is good?

These unlovely sentiments are likely to spread and intensify as life expectancy increases and pension expectations dwindle. They are harboured, somewhat prematurely and with rather dubious entitlement, by Kemp, the male character in Auntie and Me, a two-hander comedy by the Canadian playwright, Morris Panych. Starring Alan (up Jonathan Creek with an enormous paddle) Davies, the show was a hit on the Fringe at last year's Edinburgh Festival and now transfers for a West End run to Wyndham's Theatre.

Resembling a rather eerie puppet (imagine Pinocchio grown up and now a middle-ranking banker), Davies skilfully plays an emotional nerd of a businessman who leaves his job in the city to visit the estranged dying aunt he hasn't seen since his early adolescence. Premiered here in Anna Mackmin's efficient production, the play is calculatedly split.

Davies has the motor-mouth stand-up role: she (played by Margaret Tyzack) has the largely silent, lie-down one. As season follows season and Auntie spoons down pudding after pudding without evincing any sign of expiring, he rabbits on and on about his elaborately dysfunctional childhood.

I laughed out loud several times at this sorry saga. Kemp's father was not only a failed magician, but a manic depressive one to boot. Longing to brush women's hair and romping around in little red velvet shorts, he is very much his mother's boy. But unfortunately she didn't go the whole way and turn him into a fully fledged homosexual: she merely left him sexless. I also guffawed at various points when Tyzack's Grace hints that she isn't all that she seems.

There's a moment when Kemp, bored stiff by the relentless regime, falls asleep and she pads over to get a sheet to cover. But instead of wrapping it lovingly round him, she unceremoniously dumps it on him, as though he were a bit of furniture. It's a mark, though, of the fact that, while adept at coining good lines, Panych is no great shakes at creating drama, that there is not the usual irony here that the bed-bound silent character gets bigger laughs than the upright, neurotically verbal one. Auntie and Me would have benefited greatly, if Panych had taken a look at Ben Jonson's Volpone.

This is the kind of play that has a Big Surprise in store for you. Myself, I saw it coming a mile off and rather than calling for a deep reappraisal of what has gone before, it makes a nonsense of it. (Did the old lady never receive a single postal communication? Did he, psychologically fixated on his aunt, never have the urge to rifle through her belongings?) The play gradually veers towards Beckett, when you want it to plunge towards Hitchcock. Auntie and Me is fun, all right, but completely phoney.

I've had, it's true, worse nights out at worthier events. It is, however, not the most fervent compliment you can pay to this piece to say that one would have no qualms about attending it in the company of an elderly relation.

To 26 April (020-7369 1796)

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