Ian Talbot’s revival of Brandon Thomas’s 1890s comedy, Charley’s Aunt, abetted by Paul Farnsworth’s excellent design, makes one wonder whether plays such as this and the comedies of Oscar Wilde were in fact the Made in Chelsea of their day: Old Etonians on the verge of adulthood, capering around their manor, in a range of scrapes in the name of catching a fine filly and a wealthy future.
Jack Dominic Tighe and Charley Benjamin Askew are in love with young ladies, Kitty and Amy, Leah Whitaker and Ellie Beaven, from whom we hear relatively little. Charley has a beneficent millionairess aunt, whom he’s never met - but will today! The chaps invite the gels for lunch, with said aunt pencilled in as chaperone. But when she doesn’t show, champers-guzzling chum Lord Fancourt Babberley Matthew Horne is roped in to impersonate the aunt, so the luncheon can go ahead. Not unsurprisingly, the aunt - Jane Asher - appears after all, and is a million miles from Horne’s grotesque widow (who is nevertheless being heartily courted by Jack’s father and Amy’s guardian).
The opening scenes could have benefited from some judicious cutting, but the pace picks up (although often drops) and soon we recognise a near-pantomimic beat. Matthew Horne as Fancourt Babberley-as-Aunt has a canny touch with the ridiculous and physical. With the courting, capering oldies - Steven Pacey as Jack’s father, Col. Chesney, Norman Pace as Spettigue the officious guardian, and Jane Asher as Donna Lucia, the genuine aunt - Horne pushes the pace.
The younger generation - joined late in the day by Charlie Clew as Ela, the love of Babberley’s life - are stuck with the straight roles and sadly, feel anodyne and indistinct. Charles Kay’s butler-cum-chorus injects some Brummy class-consciousness and the production itself whispers that a “woman” is all too often a gentleman’s projected ideal - whether it’s virginity, housework, elegance or her millions.
The effort is there, but the final result doesn’t yet do justice to the company’s hard work, although hopefully it will before long.