Brian Rix once defined farce as tragedy with its trousers down. He obviously had not seen Val May's dismal production of Charley's Aunt. Brandon Thomas's hoary old chestnut is not a work of great wit or sophistication, but with its convoluted plot permutations of young love confused and bemused, mistaken identity and cross dressing, it's amusing enough. Indeed, for over 100 years, it has survived Arthur Askey, Jack Benny, and Danny La Rue, not to say Frank Loesser's musical version, Where's Charley, so one assumes it must have something to offer. Doubtless it will survive this creaky revival.
Two young lotharios (Jack Chesney and Charlie Wyckham) anxiously await the arrival of Charley's millionaire aunt from Brazil, so she can chaperone trysts they've arranged with their demure sweethearts. When she fails to arrive, they inveigle their frat buddy, Lord Fancourt Babberly ("Babbs"), to impersonate her. As greedy guardians pursue her/him and relationships become entangled, the real aunt appears.
One suspects that Rix was suggesting that farce needs to be played absolutely straight. The humour arises out of the audience's comprehension of the situation, not necessarily out of character. In this production, May clearly has insufficient confidence in the material since half of it is played to the audience in knowing winks and asides.
If producer Bill Kenwright can turn a penny on this production, good luck to him, but it takes some chutzpah to entice an audience by headlining a comedian of the stature of Eric Sykes to nominally play the smallest role in the play, Chesney's manservant, Bassett. Indeed, the entire production seems designed to allow Sykes to perform unscripted turns during the show. It does no service to the play, nor to Sykes. Of course, any production of Charley's Aunt depends on broad comedy business, but not necessarily, as here, comedy as broad as Norfolk. There is much grimacing, many pratfalls, and collisions with walls and furniture.
Of the other performances, perhaps the less said the better. Dominic Kemp as Chesney, gabbles, whilst his paramour, Charlotte Parry (as Kitty) is so demure as to be stupifyingly boring. Richard Hodder, as Charley, is entirely unconvincing in his romantic pursuit. Dillie Keane as the real aunt (coming late to the production after the untimely death of Nyree Dawn Porter) is a pill, lacking the essential glamour or wise humour of the part.
Only Bruce Montague and Chris Biggins as the older suitors play it straight. Neil Mullarkey as Babbs makes a fair stab at the cross-dressing lead but seems unsure as to whether he is doing farce or pantomime.
There are some laughs, but not enough. This Charley's Aunt should high-tail it back to Brazil.