By Brandon Thomas
Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, London, until November 10, 2012
To describe Charley’s Aunt as creaky is akin to describing the Himalayas as hilly. Premiered in 1892, it was a phenomenal smash hit internationally and from the outset became a staple part of the repertoire of rep companies and amateur dramatic societies. The Chocolate Factory pulls out all the stops here and gives it a supremely lavish production, which perhaps pays it more attention than it deserves.
Created as a star vehicle for famous comedian of the day, WS Penley, the part has since been hogged by everyone from Rex Harrison to Jack Benny, and Arthur Askey, star of the English music hall, made it his own, mugging to high heaven.
The plot revolves around an amorous Oxford undergraduate, Lord Fancourt Babberley, who is forced to impersonate his fellow student’s widowed Brazilian aunt when a chaperone is required so that they can entertain some lovely young ladies at luncheon. The cause of all the hilarity, therefore, is a reluctant cross-dressing protagonist, gussied up in drab drag resembling Whistler’s Momma.
Mathew Horne, star of TV’s Gavin and Stacey, is suitably cheeky as Fancourt, and handles the physical demands with panache, though when dragged up he is also curiously un-camp, which of course is true to the original style. Then, a man in a dress was considered hilarious, but the audience had to be reminded constantly that it was a dashed uncomfortable thing for a chap to do. He’s not the only one forced to pull faces though.
All the leads here have to mug every line, drop loud asides, come out of character and engage in walloping that would do justice to The Three Stooges. This means that any line of humour coming out of the situation is lost, and very soon this broad approach gets wearisome. Later on in the development of the genre, farces were to be played straight because that’s what makes them funny.
Nevertheless, Ian Talbot directs his starry cast with great aplomb and gives the piece a necessary dynamism. As well as Horne, Norman Pace is wonderfully gruff as the amorous Mr Spettigue and our national English Rose and all round “class act” Jane Asher is a vision of loveliness as the genuine Aunt, Donna Lucia.
The great pleasure of this production, however, is Paul Farnsworth’s designs. The costuming is perfect, and the large and lavish sets, for this tiny theatre, provide a wondrous Belle Époque diversion from the more ponderous moments of the play while the plot is cranking up.
In the supporting roles, Dominic Tighe cuts a dash as the cheeky scamp, and Steven Pacery, too, is wonderfully suave as his father, a frisky old Colonel, and Charles Kay, a veteran of this sort of thing, displays exquisite timing as usual as a crumbling old retainer.
In all, it’s a wonderfully daft romp but nowadays its style is more funny peculiar than funny ha-ha.