Excited children of all descriptions packed into the Hull New Theatre on Thursday night, to witness what evilness David Walliams’ Awful Auntie was getting up to.

The dimly lit stage gave no hint of what was to come, with its only adornment being a dolls’ house with a ragdoll leaning up against its wall.

As the quite scary music heralded the start of proceedings, children in the audience quickly hushed their chatter in anticipation of what was to come.

A bed appeared on stage, on which lay 12-year-old Stella Saxby (Georgina Leonidas), trussed up like a mummy in white bandages and unable to move. The only other person in the room, and not a pretty sight, was Stella’s Aunt Alberta (Timothy Speyer), who informs her young niece that she has been in a coma for three months and is paralysed following a car accident that killed her parents, Lord and Lady Saxby.

Being the awful auntie she is, Alberta doesn’t mince her words when telling Stella the bad news. “They’re dead, dead, deadedy dead,” she shouts in Stella’s stricken face.

Alberta leaves her to digest this news, but Stella doesn’t dwell on it; she wriggles out of the bandages and finds she is not paralysed after all.

Stella determines to find out the truth behind her parents’ deaths and hold Aunt Alberta accountable. But her aunt has other ideas. Her mission is to get young Stella to sign over Saxby Hall to her – but she needs to find where Lord Saxby has hidden the deeds to the huge property (don’t tell anyone - it’s between the pages of a tiddlywinks rule book, on the library shelf).

While imprisoned in the spider-ridden cellar by her devious aunt, Stella makes friends with a ghost called Soot (Ashley Cousins) who lives in the chimney. Communication is difficult at first, as “posh” Stella cannot understand a word of the Cockney rhyming slang spouting forth from Soot’s mouth.

He explains to a wary Stella that he has lived up the chimney for donkey’s ears (years) and is brown bread (dead).

She soon twigs on, they become a team (despite him loudly breaking wind, much to the audience’s amusement) and he shows her an escape route, up the chimney and down into the kitchen.

However, Aunt Alberta’s huge owl, Wagner (Rebecca Bellekom) patrols the house, shrieking loudly to alert the awful woman of Stella’s presence.

The old manservant, Gibbon (Richard James) is no threat at all. His weird and hilarious antics (for instance, he lawnmows the carpet) don’t really hinder Stella’s quest, but just add enormously to our enjoyment.

I must mention the wonderful stage setting. Characters climb upstairs and downstairs, to the rooftop and down to the garage, with seemingly little effort. The shifting scenery cleverly does most of the work, moving soundlessly around the stage before our very eyes. And the Rolls Royce car action in Act Two was amazing. Set designer, Jacqueline Trousdale, who also designed the costumes, has done a magnificent job.

We have to wait until the second half for the scenes that provoke the most laughter from young and old alike in the packed theatre. Stella and Soot get their own back on Aunt Alberta, with infantile naughtiness that children love – black boot polish in her soap; explosives in her pipe; ants in her pants and the scene that wrought the loudest laughter from youngsters, a glass pane under the toilet seat, so the awful auntie’s wee would bounce back and hit her (don’t try this at home, children).

In the end, it’s Aunt Alberta’s awfulness that’s her downfall.

This very talented cast, aided and abetted by just the right amount of scary music and an atmospheric stage setting, fed the imagination of not only the young ‘uns in the audience, but us adults, too – keeping us all engrossed from start to end.

Reviewer: Jackie Foottit

Reviewed: 17th May 2018

North West End Rating: ★★★★