The title is so boringly respectable it must conceal some fabulous, dirty joke. Or so you hope. Graham Greene’s novel is the tale of Henry Pulling – retired bank manager, dullness incarnate – and Agatha, his gallivanting aunt. Under her influence, Henry forsakes musty, suburban England for a new life brimming with couchettes and riverboats, racketeers and Turkish policemen, teeny-boppers and pimps. Somewhere between Istanbul, Paris, Boulogne and Paraguay, Henry rejects his hobby for cultivating dahlias in favour of the exotic and erotic. It is an advertisement for life lived on the edge. And a glimpse of Greene on comic form.
Giles Havergal’s adaptation – first presented by the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, in 1989 – is faithful, agile and almost ingenious (he nearly makes a virtue out of acres of exposition). Christopher Luscombe directs a cast of four grey-haired men (and no women, for no good reason) and scenes flit about the world in pleasant, spritely fashion. Jonathan Hyde’s angular Aunt Agatha is an artful pastiche of an elderly, sex-mad lady and David Bamber’s fussy, puffy agitation is perfectly Pulling. Oliver Fenwick’s lights, which are almost always dimmed, convey an impression of perpetual dusk. It’s a nostalgic piece, thick with racy reminiscences, and – apart from Greene’s racist portrait of Aunt Agatha’s servant-lover (a “negro” characterised by lasciviousness, criminality and little else) – it’s quite diverting.
But life on the edge? The aunt is naughty, oh yes, and the nephew becomes naughtier, but the drama is never less than safe. Action is narrated, more than acted: it is – and feels – filtered. There is no danger. And the jokes, of which there are many, tend to be laboured – Henry won’t marry someone as buttoned-up as he is because her passion is tatting, his is dahlias and “tatting and dahlias have nothing in common”. Elsewhere there’s a jape about Henry smoking “pot” on a foreign train – completely by mistake!
It is tepid fare – faultlessly respectable, in fact – but that doesn’t mean it won’t do well at the box office. The Henry Pulling species is not extinct, after all, and he would love it, as will others. His aunt would not.