Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
While most comedies rarely work in their entirety outside the period and society in which they were first conceived, Liverpool-born Brandon Thomas's classic farce has remained a favourite on both the professional and the amateur stage for nearly 120 years.
Set in the world of the young, idle upper classes in late Victorian England, Oxford students Jack Chesney and Charles Wykeham have invited Kitty Verdun and Amy Spettigue to their rooms at college to propose to them. Charles's aunt, whom he has never met, is now a wealthy widow and is coming over from Brazil, but when she sends a telegram to cancel her visit (and the girls won't stay without a chaperone), they persuade their friend Lord Fancourt Babberley (Babs) to dress up and impersonate Charley's Aunt. The stage is set for lots of chases, scenes of mistaken identity, conversations at crossed purposes and wildly improbable coincidences, all important elements of classic farce.
While it still raises a lot of laughs, this is very much a play of its time; chaperones, letters of permission to marry and audience sympathy for a son of the aristocracy who cannot pay his champagne bill are all relics of a past age that wouldn't work in a modern play. Some of the comedy and characters too are straight out of music hall or silent comedy films, such as the repeated line "where did you get that hat?" and the wound-up ball of fury that is guardian to the girls, Stephen Spettigue, but its strangeness can be refreshing as well as dating the piece.
Braham Murray's production is certainly fast-moving and filled with set pieces of physical comedy. However these set pieces look a little too deliberately staged for the whole thing to flow smoothly and naturally. For instance, there is a superbly-executed move when 'Charley's Aunt' launches himself into his costume in the middle of a forward roll, but those of us who couldn't see him wandering through the audience were left looking at the other two boys holding the costume in a way that could only be a set-up for this move. Perhaps in another week or so these rough edges will smooth out and the misdirection will be more effective.
The play depends very heavily on having a good physical comic in the title role, and certainly Oliver Gomm has the physical presence and the comic delivery to pull this off, resulting in some very funny moments of both physical and verbal comedy. However he has been given a bit too much licence by the director, indulging in some rather over-the-top silly voices and some physical routines are padded out with pointless muttering and hand waving. If the director could reign in some of the self-indulgence in Gomm's performance, this could be a truly great comic performance to remember.
Gomm has excellent support from Jack Farthing as Jack Chesney with Brodie Ross as a fawning, nervous Charles Wykeham. Stephen Hudson is superb as the disapproving, put-upon servant Brassett. Malcolm Rennie gives a wonderful red-faced angry portrayal of Stephen Spettigue who falls for the fake Charley's Aunt, and there is a nice subtle performance from Michael Elwyn as Jack's father Sir Francis Chesney. The female characters don't get a great deal to do, but Annabel Scholey and Sarah Ovens pull off the characters of Kitty and Amy perfectly, and there is a noble and playful portrayal of the real aunt, Donna Lucia D'Alvadorez, from Briony McRoberts with a simpering Ela Delahay, the object of Babs's affection, played by Elizabeth Crarer by her side.
At its best this production can produce loud belly laughs from the audience but it is rather uneven. If the mechanics of the routines can be smoothed over and better concealed and the more indulgent excesses of the performers reigned in a bit, this could be a really great production rather than one with some great moments.
Playing to 7th August, 2010
Reviewer: David Chadderton