Charley's Aunt

Brandon Thomas
New Victoria Theatre, Woking, and Touring
(2007)

This meticulously researched and beautifully crafted comedy was written more than a century ago and must remain in that era as the idea of young girls needing a chaperone has long since gone. It is none the worse for that and, despite being full of “silly ass” men and twittering girls, this production manages to hit exactly the right note between hilarious comedy and fascinating intrigue wondering how these characters will extricate themselves from their absurd situation. A little love interest is thrown in too, creating a nice balance between comedy and sentimentality.

The scene is set at Oxford University where two undergraduates are attempting to write letters to their loved ones and only getting as far as “Dear Kitty/Amy” before ideas run out. Charley’s aunt, Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez, (whom he has never met) is due to arrive from Brazil “Where the nuts come from” so why not let her chaperone a visit from the girls and they will get their good friend Lord Fancourt Babberley to entertain the aunt while they each chat up their beloved. A letter is duly despatched to ‘Babbs’ with instructions to the butler “An answer by bearer would be much obliged” and an answer arrives in minutes – that’s quicker than e-mail. Have we lost something in the name of progress?

Babberley arrives to a now vacant apartment and this is Stephen Tompkinson as you have never seen him before – hilarious even before he dons the frock. His manner, voice, expression and actions are spot-on as the genial, well-meaning slightly silly friend who is now involved in amateur dramatics and just happens to be playing the part of an old lady. The play was reputedly inspired by an old sepia photograph of one of Thomas’s elderly relatives. She must be turning in her grave to see what her image initiated, but hopefully roaring with laughter at the same time.

Mel Smith’s expert direction keeps the pace moving swiftly along but lets the play speak for itself. Nothing is over-emphasised or repeated in case we hadn’t seen the joke – audience intelligence is respected – and in spite of the bizarre situation where a reluctant Babbs finds himself impersonating the absent aunt they somehow make everything seem almost believable, and totally uproariously funny.

David Partridge and Nicholas Clayton are Jack and Charles, the two prospective suitors, and the parts of love-struck tongue-tied young men afford plenty of amusement, but it is at Babb’s entrance that the play really takes off, Tompkinson revealing himself to be an inspired comic genius to add to his multitude of diverse credits.

There is a nicely understated performance from Michael Melia as the butler, who often addresses the audience directly with his thoughts and comments, and Amy and Kitty (Tatina de Marinis and Emily Pennant-Rea) are a perfectly correct foil to this oversized ‘aunt’ that they regard as their friend and confidante.

John Vine and Richard Syms are the father and uncle who create havoc and confusion by setting their caps at the bogus aunt, and even more confusion occurs when the real Donna Lucia arrives in the person of Marty Cruickshank, accompanied by Sophie Roberts as Ela Delahay, the love interest for Babbs.

Surprisingly the complications are sorted out and everyone ends up with the right partner.

A truly entertainingly hilarious performance and it is to be hoped that Tompkinson will treat us to more of the same.

Touring to Richmond, Newcastle, Brighton and Cardiff

V Mitchell reviewed this production at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle

Sheila Connor