Review: Charley's Aunt

Classic farce gains many more fans

By John Jeffay, July 1, 2010

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

A laugh-out-loud moment as Charley’s aunt (the magnificent Oliver Gomm) sneaks a crafty cigar

A laugh-out-loud moment as Charley’s aunt (the magnificent Oliver Gomm) sneaks a crafty cigar

The audience howled, wept and shrieked at this marvellous re-working of a comic treasure.

Oliver Gomm shines magnificently as Charley's aunt - although the rest of the cast deserves similar praise.

It would, in truth, be hard to find fault with this furiously paced farce, as it lurches from silly to very silly and beyond. The play has not aged since Brandon Thomas wrote it almost 120 years ago, and Braham Murray's production at the Royal Exchange was hilarious from start to finish.

Babbs, or rather Lord Fancourt Babberley, is the hapless fellow who finds himself in a most improbable situation - pretending to be the aunt of an Oxford University friend called Charley.

Jack Chesney (Jack Farthing) and Charles Wykeham (Brodie Ross) are desperate to win the hands in marriage of their respective sweethearts Kitty and Amy (Annabel Scholey and Sarah Ovens).

An awful lot of lies are lived in an awfully short time

But Victorian society requires a chaperone for them to dine together at Jack's college rooms. Step forward Charley's aunt, the millionairess benefactor from Brazil who has paid for his education but whom he has never met.

As fortune would have it, the aunt, Donna Lucia D'Alvadorez (Briony McRoberts), is about to arrive in Oxford for a luncheon date. Except she cancels, sending a last-minute telegraph that throws Jack's and Charles's proposal plans into chaos.

The only "aunt" available at a moment's notice is Babbs, whose sole qualification is the possession of a frock, obtained for an amateur dramatics exploit.

Babbs is reluctant, hopeless and unprepared. The poor chap knows nothing about Brazil, except that it is where the nuts come from.

But once he gets into the swing of it the fact that he is "no ordinary woman" is not going to stop him. Even when he finds not one but two suitors vying for his affections - or at least for the fortune they imagine he/she has.

And then he finds himself face to face with his long-lost love, Ela Delahay (Elizabeth Carer), who, coincidentally, has been adopted by the real Charley's aunt.

Yes, Babbs is a woman - not a very attractive one, and nothing at all like the real Charley's aunt. But being a woman, in a long black frock and ridiculous grey wig, with a fake Brazilian accent, is no way to win the young lady he would like to marry.

And that is part of what creates the play's comic tension - the clash between the compelling reasons to be a woman, and the compelling reasons not to be.

It is a bit like watching Little Britain - delightful and excruciating at the same time. Deceit and misunderstanding are piled precariously on top of each other, followed by brilliant moments of revelation as characters cotton on to the consequences of the latest twist in the tangled plot.

Proposals of marriage dominate the action, motivated either by youthful true love or the desire for financial gain in later life. An awful lot of lies are lived in an awfully short time.

The pace is frenetic with all the slamming of doors, hiding under furniture and chasing across the stage that you would expect from what many acknowledge to be Britain's finest farce.

And then director Murray slams on the brakes to magnify the beautiful moments of visual humour such as when Babbs (still in a frock) tries to sneak a crafty cigar at the end of a dinner party.

Or when, with something of a Les Dawson flourish, he entertains the ladies by playing Chopsticks on the piano. Or when he serves tea to Stephen Spettigue (Malcolm Rennie), with milk and many cubes of sugar, in his top hat. These are moments to savour, played out with perfect comic timing.

A mention also for Stephen Hudson, who gives a fine performance as the dry-witted, long-suffering butler Brassett and won applause for an unscripted aside on press night. Note to the props people - get that man some decent matches to strike.

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Last updated: 11:26am, July 1 2010