A satisfying farce sealed with a kiss; cross dressing and cricket are brought to the New Theatre in Brandon Thomas’ hilarious Charley’s Aunt. When the success of a courtship tea depends on the appearance of an elusive Brazilian aunt, two Oxford University students transform a peer into the dithering old woman. The comic effects of this deceit on a number of subsequent visitors are played out before the audience producing many a laugh, as this 120 year old farce, directed by James McAndrew and produced by Nick Stevenson, takes to the New Theatre stage.
The witty delivery of the play’s words ensured the Victorian charm of this farce was not lost. The contrast between the steady, and collected Jack Chesney and his fidgety chum Charley Wykeham, was skilfully engineered by Will Randall and Laurence Jennings, respectively. Their bumbling was balanced by the refined nature of their love interests, Amy (Emma Dearden) and Kitty (Rosie Tressler); the poised manner and clear diction of the latter placing the drama firmly in the Victorian drawing room. Regular, satiric comment from Brasset the suave butler (James Bentley) engaged the audience in the absurdity of events.
Like Brandon’s writing and consequently the energy of the production, Freddie Garnett’s aunt ‘from where the nuts come from’ got better with time and reached its peak in Act 3 during a scene containing a piano, an awkwardly unfunny anecdote and a selection of truly marvellous facial expressions. As the production progressed, Garnett’s accent and mannerisms developed until the audience were chuckling at his every move. Other strong male performances were provided by Gus Miller as Stephen Spettigue and Hugh Williams as Sir Frances Chesney, however their portrayals could have benefitted from an increased amount of variance in dynamics as certain scenes were overpowered by the volume of their delivery. The dramatic irony provided through the presence of the real Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez (Suzie Roope), was exaggerated through her detailed questioning of the hoax relative in the triumphant third act of the production. The suspense was further compounded by the words of the sweet yet apparently naïve Ela Delahay, played by Lara Tyselling.
The amusement followed three impressive major set changes, first around an Oxford college and then into the home of the lively Stephen Spettigue, designed by Chelsea Jayne Wright. The strip of grass and stone, which fronted the stage, was reminiscent of those untouchable college lawns and ensured the prim atmosphere remained throughout. Photos of a beloved cricket team along with a carafe of claret of pointed to the pursuits of the characters, whilst an eccentric walking stick and ‘clinking’ china exaggerated the ridiculousness of upper class propriety as well as provoking much laughter. At times however, props did hinder the movement of the actors and at some parts of Act 1 the stage seemed over crowded, as the guests for tea became lost behind each other. Again, by the final act this had improved and the production ended with the strong, lasting image of the four evenly spaced, happy couples.
Will Pimblett’s lighting design was simple but effective in lighting the merriment throughout. It was seen to be at its most inventive when used to emphasise the tableau images, in which the actors united in a perfectly frozen image, at the end of Acts 1 and 2 to minimise the somewhat disengaging effects of the double interval format.
This farce’s Victorian roots were maintained through the use of costume; the sharp suits of the Oxford peers and the dainty, floor length dresses of their love interests gave the production its classic feel. Additional humour was provided by the sky blue suit with a sense of ‘international rescue’, sported by ‘Wykeham’, and the lavender and mint – green numbers of the real ‘Donna Lucia’ and her niece were reminiscent of a bouquet of flowers so often found in the centre of a Victorian dinner table. The combination of a black lace bonnet, golden curls and layers of frills constituted the disguise of the false aunt, and provided much amusement during the improvised re-dressing scene.
A combination of well developed lead performances and a classic script made for a farce which, although slow to start, gathered momentum in its second act resulting in a fabulous conclusion. Combined with the authentic nature of the costumes, the lighting and stage design created a sophisticated environment for both the taking of afternoon tea and the antics of a cross dressed male and his acquaintances.