First performed in 1892, Charley's Aunt tells the story of two friends awaiting the arrival of one’s Aunt Dona Lucia. The two wish to propose to their true loves, but need the presence of Dona Lucia to chaperone. Time is ticking and Charley’s Aunt gets delayed. Desperate, the boys blackmail their friend Lord Fancourt Babberley (Horne) to pose as the missing Aunt. True to comedic form, all falls apart and that’s when the fun begins.
Directed by Ian Talbot, Charley's Aunt runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 10 November.
…Written as a star vehicle, Thomas's play largely depends on that central drag performance for its laughs. Mathew Horne, got up like Whistler’s Mother, wastes the opportunity…Handsomely designed and costumed by Paul Farnsworth, Ian Talbot's production is nonetheless content to assume that passé poshness only found onstage…Tighe…once again proves himself well-suited to the style, but others succumb to its mealy-mouthedness. Jane Asher's actual aunt is rather stilted at first, though softens when gently toying with her impersonator. Only Steven Pacey, all military bluster as Jack’s father, surpasses it to manage genuine laughs. Farce has come a long way in 120 years and Thomas's looks too straightforward and sluggish: like Wilde without the wit. These days, Charley’s Aunt is a drab act.
…Horne’s appearance as Lord Fancourt Babberly, before he throws on the dress and antimacassar of the faux aunt, is startling…The hyper-realistic set, designed by Paul Farnsworth complete with twisting spires, grand arches, old boys photos and a cabinet filled with champagne…Once fully frocked, Horne’s gurning turns to feverish anxiousness at being found out. He has some wonderful slapstick moments…The contrast between Jane Asher’s poised and charming aunt and Horne’s gregarious, flustered ersatz version is a genius bit of casting. Where he flaps towards the audience, her serene confidence draws the eye. In one lovely moment the pair walk side-by-side, with the fake aunt trying to imitate the genuine article, as they turn their backs to the crowd, kicking out their skirts, it’s Asher who holds our gaze.
…The tiny Menier gleefully embraces this fin-de-siècle grandeur, as Dominic Tighe’s Jack and his dim pal Charley (Benjamin Askew) weave a disastrous web…Ian Talbot’s cast balance absurdity and real charm…It hinges on a lovely central performance by Mathew Horne…Horne’s strength lies in looking unglamorous, panicky, briefly overconfident and then genuinely, touchingly appalled at the complications. Physically he is brilliant…The greedy choleric Spettigue is Norman Pace (an unforgettable love-dance) and the real aunt is, of course, Jane Asher in a purple cloud of velvet elegance and matriarchal power…So the play emerges as a reburnished delight…So how enchanting to reflect that the same comic toffery amused the Victorians, and made this a runaway hit. Mr and Mrs Pooter thought young toffs as funny as we do; yet kindly rejoiced when their romances came good.
…Many of the laughs are thanks to Mathew Horne’s full-throttle performance as the panicky Fancourt…Around him there’s bright work, especially from Dominic Tighe as Jack, while enjoyable support comes from Steven Pacey and Jane Asher, whose amorous entanglement is a grown-up version of the younger characters’ fragile intrigue. Ian Talbot’s production is orthodox, yet none the worse for being so. Paul Farnsworth’s design is certainly the most lavish I have seen at this Southwark venue. It looks very much as if it has been created with a West End transfer in mind. The decision to have two intervals makes this a longer evening than is strictly necessary, and the writing can feel heavy-handed. But although daft beyond belief, Charley’s Aunt is indestructibly funny.
…Director Ian Talbot cleverly sets its comic cogs in motion, throws some expert actors at it, and lets it run effortlessly, without either fuss or fury. There’s no attempt to impose a concept - instead, he mines it for rigorous comic detail, epitomised by sleekly elegant sets by Paul Farnsworth…Mathew Horne…his performance is a comic tour de farce. But though Horne’s role may be centre of the action - and has to fight off the romantic attentions of Steven Pacey’s wonderfully crisp and practical Sir Francis Chesney and Norman Pace’s Stephen Spettigue - it’s no one-man production, but a magnificently marshalled ensemble show with not a weak link in it. Jane Asher’s arrival as the real aunt, gliding around with a hilarious complicity in the deception, sets the seal on an evening of all-round comic delight.