There's life in the old girl yet: Clever sets and heavenly costumes mean Charley's Aunt is still jolly good fun
01:59 GMT, 2 November 2012
CHARLEY'S AUNT (Menier Chocolate Factory, London)
Verdict: Innocent frolics
Long loved by amateur dramatics companies, Charley’s Aunt is a late Victorian comedy with antimacassars, an orphan, a dragon of an ‘aunt’ and feckless youths.
It is almost The Importance Of Being Earnest yet it lacks the camp acidity of that 1895 Oscar Wilde work, which opened three years after Brandon Thomas’s play.
Ian Talbot’s production at the Menier Chocolate Factory is opulent for this fringy venue. Designer Paul Farnsworth has come up with a clever set and there are heavenly costumes.
Aunt misbehaving: Matthew Horne and Jane Asher in Charley's Aunt
More than that, director Talbot treats this classic with respect. He tickles its tummy in a couple of places but allows the plot to work its farcical magic. The happy ending, though silly, is unexpectedly touching.
Jack (a well-cast Dominic Tighe) and Charley (Benjamin Askew) are about to graduate from Oxford. They have a last chance respectively to court pretty Kitty (Leah Whitaker) and Amy (Ellie Beaven). Romantic success depends on the arrival from Brazil of Charley’s millionaire aunt.
When she fails to turn up, the boys, in desperation, persuade their friend Lord Fancourt Babberley (Mathew Horne) to dress up as the aunt. This he does, amid inevitable chaos. That chaos is then multiplied when the real aunt (Jane Asher, flashing her implausible teeth like Esther Rantzen) enters.
Mr Horne is a winner. What a horror of an aunt he is, as short and stocky as a scrum half. At times he resembles Commons Speaker John Bercow — but somehow contrives to be even more absurd. A moment at the end of Act One when he misses his seat is skilfully done.
Television comedian Norman Pace does a turn as the girls’ ‘boiled owl’ of a guardian, Mr Spettigue. Charles Kay hams it up as a valet. Steven Pacey is perfect as Jack’s dashing old dad.
The plot is as predictable as the tides and the characters, on the page, are dull dogs. Yet the thing is sweetly entertaining. It trundles along, the acting is spirited, and the innocence of the enterprise — the lack of sarcasm — is refreshing.
It’s all about as cutting-edge as a butter knife, but Charley’s Aunt is jolly good fun and it was no surprise to find the Menier packed. Let’s hope it transfers to the West End, so more people will get a chance to see it.