It used to be said that Roddy Llewellyn once had a small part in Charley’s Aunt.
Tee hee. That silly old chestnut of a gag that naturally appeals to the Whingers’ puerile sense of humour. But then Brandon Thomas‘ Charley’s Aunt is a silly old (1892) chestnut of a comedy and strangely one they Whingers had never seen despite its fame and its illustrious roll call of famous ‘Aunts’ (listed in the Menier programme) which includes Noël Coward, Rex Harrison, Arthur Askey, John Gielgud, Frankie Howard, Danny La Rue, John Inman, John Mills, Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith.*
It is indeed the comic cross-dresser’s Hamlet.
So no pressure on Matthew Horne then, taking the role of champagne-poaching Oxford undergraduate Lord Fancourt Babberley persuaded to pose as Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez a rich widow from Brazil (“Where the nuts come from”) so his fellow students Donna Lucia’s nephew (who has never met his aunt), Charley Wykeham (Benjamin Askew) and Jack Chesney (Dominic Tighe) can have a chaperone to allow them to woo the girls (Ellie Beaven and Leah Whitaker) they’ve fallen for.
Fancourt happens to be dipping his toe into am-dram. His first role is as a woman and he happens to have the costume in his room. Of course he does. It’s a farce that employs coincidence to make The Importance of Being Earnest look like Ibsenite realism; that’s if you’re one of those who park your derrière in the camp that sees Ibsen as a realist.
The real Donna Lucia (an elegantly mischievous Jane Asher) – who was due to visit anyway – turns up and poses as a penniless widow. Explaining the rest of the daffy plot would keep you here all day, but in keeping with mistaken identities Phil – or perhaps inheriting Andrew’s prosopagnosia – was having a few of his own.
In appearance Horne’s Fancourt reminded Phil of Tony Curtis, his Charley’s Aunt of Whistler’s Mother by way of Queen Victoria** with a passing facial resemblance to Freddie Starr. Now it must also be noted that Andrew had been banging on to Phil about the delights of the Jack Whitehall‘s TV comedy Bad Education - which also features Horne - and for once Phil must concede the point. Horne is hilarious here too.
Act One (of three; there are two intervals) is a pretty sluggish offering: not many laughs arise as the plot’s substantial scaffolding must be erected. Don’t blame the cast, blame the the creakiness of the exposition. But once Horne bursts on the pace livens. His Fancourt is a terrific comic creation of silly-arsed toffiness in itself and that’s even before he’s coaxed into drag.
It’s a gloriously well-appointed affair; Paul Farnsworth’s sets and costumes – especially Asher’s frocks and millinery – and the casting (which includes Steven Pacey, Charles Kay and “boiled owl” Norman Pace ) suggest eyes are looking across the river. Although it seems the programmes at £4 (eek!) have already arrived in the West End.
The play creaks more than Phil’s joints. There’s a lot of frenzied rushing around that rapidly palls and surely something is amiss when the biggest laugh came as Askew accidentally slipped on a rug, did an excellent recovery and won a round of applause. Was this audience peppered with fans of You’ve Been Framed? Some of the sumptuous investment should go in those sticky things that stop rugs slipping. Or not perhaps? Keep it in for the big laugh we say.
And yes, sorry to those who carp on about these things, this was an early preview but at least we promise we won’t set our apology to music. Despite some well-honed performances – especially from Horne’s supremely energetic and gloriously engaging performance - it frequently sagged.
Director Ian Talbot may yet whip it up so it rises into a dazzling comedic soufflé but at this stage it suggested someone had left the oven door ajar.
Worth going round for Horne however.
Sydney Chaplin, Leslie Phillips, Tom Courtenay and Jack Benny have also played the aunt, but it’s the 1975 Soviet musical version ”Hello, I’m Your Aunt!” ( Здравствуйте, я ваша тётя!) that really piqued our interest.
** This look appears to be tradition, unless that is, you’re Danny La Rue.