In creating a farce there are some crucial ingredients: multiple exits, OTT acting, immaculate timing, improbable coincidence and that mandatory staple of British comedy throughout the ages – dress a man up as a woman. Get all these right and Bob’s your uncle. And Charley’s your aunt.
The Tower Theatre production of Charley’s Aunt made a good fist of these requirements entertaining the audience with some slick dialogue, much gratuitous rushing about, a lot of cod WTF? expressions (or whatever the late-Victorian equivalent was), all built around Sean McMullan’s near perfect nut-job dowager drag-act. Hailing from the “Mrs Brown’s Boys” school of female impersonation, McMullan, with his wig and especially his specs, looked and, more importantly, quite often sounded like Brendan O’Carroll’s Mrs Brown. Whether this was a directorial trait, or closely observed role research by the actor, or just pure coincidence, is a moot point. But it didn’t hamper the enjoyment of the show which only really comes to life – after about half an hour of detailed and stodgy exposition which sets up the play’s pivotal device – when the faux Donna Lucia gets into her/his stride.
We can see it all coming of course and we wallow in the implausibility of it all but some judicious pruning of the long first section might get us there quicker and could restrict the overly flamboyant and uber-indulgent scenery chewing by Owen Chidlaw as Jack Chesney, the instigator of the farcical shenanigans that are set against the backdrop of the dreaming spires. Along with the badly played Eton Boating Song piano intros and the cut-glass public school accents we recognise that this particular Oxford under-graduate must be an Old Hammovian.
Fortunately Charlie Bailey as Charles Wykeham – the Charley of the title – provides a helpful antidote to Jack’s melodramatics by taking on the role of straight man to Chidlaw’s camp-meister. Bailey successfully seeks succour in stillness and understands the value of suggestion in such a small auditorium with l-shaped audience so close to the stage.
Simon Boughey as Jack’s dad and Matthew Vickers as uncle and guardian of the dual love interest, provide abundant bluster and bemusement whilst Richard Kirby as the long-suffering butler furnishes amusing asides and gently cutting sideswipes at the expense of his young lords and masters.
It’s always a plus when the real women enter the fray and Camilla Fox as coquetty Kitty is delightful in a pre-suffragette, stamp-your- foot, positive-Victorian- young-lady kind of way and Sophie Rodrigues as Amy and Holly Milne as Ella lend her strong support.
Helen McCormack as – Spoiler Alert! – the real Donna Lucia settles on the action like a lovingly-embroidered, lavender-infused, antimacassar-style comfort-blanket, calming everyone down whilst actually stirring the simmering pot to provide the boiling-over denouement.
Wendy Perry’s simple and clever set design, in an awkward space, enhances the farcical action (though I’m not so sure they had plastic flower pots back in 1892) and the Lighting Design by Alan Wilkinson is subtle and effective.
Overall, Director Eddie Coleman squeezes every last scintilla of humour from his effervescent cast, doing full justice to Brandon Thomas’s seminal classic of the genre. It’s no coincidence that good farce is based around coincidence and the motto “Charley’s Aunt – Still Running” perpetuates today through intuitive productions like this.
Review by Peter Yates
by Brandon Thomas
Directed by Eddie Coleman
It’s 1890. Jack and Charley wish to propose to Amy and Kitty but the ladies require a chaperone. When Charley’s aunt from Brazil sends word she isn’t coming, they coerce Lord Fancourt Babberly into impersonating the rich old widow. Then Jack’s newly impoverished father arrives along with the girls’ greedy guardian and suddenly “Babbs” is the most popular widow in town! And who is the mysterious woman with the pretty young niece?
This classic romantic farce was most recently produced at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2012 with Mathew Horne and Jane Asher.