Charley's Aunt

Brandon Thomas
An Ian Dickens Production
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring
(2010)

Charley's Aunt publicity graphic

It seemed an inauspicious beginning when this play was first tried out in the provinces in February,1892. The premiere went well (that is if we can believe the opinion of its leading performer, the then famous comedian Sydney Penley) but by the second night there were only thirty people in the audience and the box office receipts showed the princely sun of twelve shillings (60p). Things changed though when it hit the West End in December of that year and the show, polished and prepared, really took off with so many people fighting for tickets that extra police had to be drafted in to control the traffic. It ran for over four years and subsequent productions starring a host of celebrities such as Noel Coward, Rex Harrison, John Gielgud, John Mills, Mel Smith etc. etc. and around one hundred and twenty years later it’s still going strong.

This production follows the usual pattern of farce, which the Oxford Dictionary of English defines as “a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay, and typically including crude characterisation and ludicrously improbable situations”. The characters here, however, are carefully and credibly drawn, if a little exaggerated, and there are some splendid performances to match the craft of the play’s construction, although buffoonery, horseplay and improbable situations are much in evidence, along with some frantic chases.

Jack (Tim Samuels) and Charles (Henry Gilbert) are two irresponsible young Oxford undergraduates, recklessly spending their allowances and with their minds more on romantic attachments than on their studies. In love with Kitty and Amy they invite them to lunch with Charley’s Aunt, Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez, acting as the essential chaperone, but Aunty is delayed and unable to make an appearance - what to do now? Their champagne ‘borrowing’ friend Lord Fancourt Babberley, known as Babbs, is about to take part in a play attired as a woman - well you can guess the rest and the complications which follow, especially as the real aunt is a millionaire and a widow - ready for the plucking, and Jack’s father and the girls’ guardian and uncle are in need of money and ready to pluck.

Set firmly, and sensibly, in the period when it was written, the costumes are charmingly appropriate, and the three separate set designs very impressive, although a little wobbly.

Nick Waring is Babbs and equally plausible as the tipsy student and the reluctant ‘aunt’ trying, wide-eyed and innocent, to make a good job of the role that has been thrust upon him while desperately avoiding the amorous attentions of the two men. He is in even more of an embarrassing situation when the real Donna Lucia arrives (played beautifully by Sabina Franklyn with dignified amusement at the situation) with her companion Ela (Anna Mitcham), the love of Babb’s life - and here he is in a frock!

Ben Roberts is a down-to-earth and put-upon Cockney butler with a dry humour and also a useful source of ready money, Neil Stacy and Glyn Grain have great fun as the father and uncle, and I really like Isla Carter’s Kitty. She views her intended with amused tolerance and obviously has complete control of the situation. I think Jack will find his irresponsible days are coming to an end.

There were some unrehearsed accidents in last night’s production which only added to the fun but farce is a bit like Marmite, some love it some hate it. If you love it, and by the loud and unrestrained laughter almost everyone did, then you’re in for a great evening.

Touring to Stevenage and Crewe

Reviewer: Sheila Connor