A record-breaking box office smash in 1892, Thomas's farce shows two hard-up, loved-up Oxford undergraduates – dreaming sighers, perhaps – in a bit of a pickle. Having arranged a double-date under the chaperonage of a wealthy, widowed aunt, Jack Chesney and Charley Wykeham (Dominic Tighe and Benjamin Askew, with shades of a young Cameron/Johnson tag-team) receive a telegram announcing her delay.
Step forward Lord Fancourt Babberley, a fellow student preparing to play an old lady in a college production, who is promptly thrust into the role of Donna Lucia D'Alvadorez, Charley's Aunt.
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. He lets the dress do all the work, hardly distinguishing between 'Babs' and Donna Lucia, and so loses the comedy of keeping up appearances. Babs' flustered panic is always obvious, where it needs to switch on and off, and he remains feminine even when unobserved.
Handsomely designed and costumed by Paul Farnsworth, Ian Talbot's production is nonetheless content to assume that passé poshness only found onstage (“Gee-ack, shell we hairve a lunch-spotty?”). Tighe, such a spick Algernon at Regent's Park three years ago, 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.