Charley’s Aunt – from Brazil – where the nuts come from; the phrase is the stuff of legend. I saw sure I had seen a production of this in my youth at the Young Vic but my memories of it were hazy. I did a bit of online research and it revealed nothing. But the irritation of not being able to bring it to mind started to get too much…So there was nothing to be done for it, I would have to search my theatre programme collection. And there it was – a production at the Young Vic that I attended on January 3rd 1977 when I was still sweet 16. It was directed by Denise Coffey and had a great cast – Lord Fancourt Babberley was played by Nicky Henson; Jack and Charley were Ian Gelder and Simon Chandler; Amy Spettigue was Natasha Pyne (from Father Dear Father) and Ela Delahay was a young Miss Janine Duvitski. I remember thinking at the time that, for such an old play, it was still very funny.
That would have been its 85th anniversary production – if you care to look at it in those terms. The current production at the Menier celebrates its 120th anniversary, and it is still as fresh as the proverbial daisy, or indeed Sir Francis Chesney’s wandering carnation. You get an instant high as you enter the auditorium from looking at the beautiful, versatile and (by Menier standards) extremely large set designed by Paul Farnsworth. We loved the gargoyle effects and the dreaming spires, the way the outside courtyard transformed into Spettigue’s house, and how by removing or reversing panels you can create what was outside, inside, and vice versa. And from our vantage point of Row A, you feel so close and involved in the action. Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt like imaginary seventh and eighth people attending the Act One lunch as the dining table was almost within arm’s reach of us.
I did however want to dash across the stage to where Jack was writing his opening scene letter and replace the book he was leaning on with something genuinely from the period. They’re using a 1970s red leatherette Readers Digest book godammit! Why not use an old anonymous brown leather bound tome, you could get one off Ebay for £3.50. Tsk!
Anyway I think that’s my only criticism of the play dealt with. Apart from that, it’s a dream. The packed audience laughed all the way through – sometimes hysterically; sometimes having to fight the urge to exclaim back at the cast at the onstage larks. There’s a moment when Lord Fancourt Babberley is hiding behind the piano, and when he is discovered, there is an almighty thud suggesting he’d walloped his head against the back of the piano. Not only was I laughing my own head off, I ended up cradling it in sympathetic agony too. There were pained groans from all over the audience. I must say that the moments of comic business littered throughout the show are all done marvellously.
“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive”, the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle used to warn, and this play could almost be the dictionary definition of that old saying. Jack and Charley want to progress their chances with their sweethearts Kitty and Amy, but propriety requires a chaperone. Fortunately Charley’s rich aunt Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez is expected from Brazil (where the nuts come from) so the girls agree to risk the naughtiness of proximity to the boys provided she is there to stand guard. Unfortunately though, her arrival is delayed; so Jack and Charley convince their fellow undergraduate toff Fancourt Babberley to disguise himself as the aunt so that their separate loves may be professed to the girls before the latter go to Scotland, for apparently what was going to be a helluva long time. Naturally things get out of hand; the aunt’s finances attract amorous advances; the real aunt turns up; farce ensues.
It was first produced in 1892, the same year as Lady Windermere’s Fan, and almost exactly in the middle of Georges Feydeau’s career as farceur magnifique d’Europe, which is definitely reflected in its content. However, it also has quite a Shakespearean structure to it. Cross-dressing, old fools making an idiot of themselves over love, a humorous servant and with four engagements to be married before the curtain comes down. No wonder people were falling over themselves to procure tickets for it back in 1892. This production is, appropriately, absolutely faithful to Brandon Thomas’ original text and I really liked the fact that they have gone for two intervals. I know it’s not trendy to do so, and that frequently directors look for a cliffhanger moment in the middle of act two just to chop it in half for simplicity’s sake; but three-acters were written for a reason, and it gives audience and cast alike a chance to pace themselves.
When it was first announced that this production would star Mathew Horne and Jane Asher my immediate thought was that it was perfect casting; and so it is. Mathew Horne is brilliant at taking those “put-upon” roles – whether it be Gavin, or Nan Taylor’s grandson – where the source of the comedy is elsewhere but requires the visible suffering of an innocent everyman figure. Nan Taylor reminds me of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle so I’ve always identified with Mr Horne in those scenes. Mind you, Lord Fancourt Babberley isn’t that innocent; he does try to nick the four bottles of champagne after all. Cue a perfect example of Mr Horne’s acting eyes; when after some undergraduate horseplay he lands chest down on the bag containing the bottles and you hear that agonising clink of glass on glass, with one glimpse of his anxious expression, the audience groaned and shared his alarm. He has an extraordinary ability to convey that “I don’t believe what just happened/I just heard/they just did” emotion with a fractional eye movement.
Brandon Thomas is very clear in his stage instructions that “Fanny Babbs” should be in no way effeminate as Donna Lucia; and Mathew Horne catches that ridiculous set-up perfectly. He has to veer towards the pug-ugly and behave like a bloke so that the attractions of Spettigue are even more absurd; and a lot of the comedy comes from the juxtaposition of Donna Lucia’s presumed gentility and FB’s chummy Etonian boisterousness. That all works really well in this production. His genuine distress at being put in this embarrassing position is real and funny; and when he dissolves into a puddle of love at the prospect of Miss Delahay, I actually found it quite moving. It’s a great performance, full of physical comedy, technically spot-on and not a word garbled or hard to hear, so hurrah for that.
Of course it’s great to see Jane Asher on stage, giving a wonderfully balanced performance based on the refined but warm character of the real Donna Lucia and her comic teasing of the fake Donna Lucia. She has super stage presence, which lends itself perfectly to the dignity of her character, but also with a very light human and comic touch. Her little utterance of excitement after she has re-established contact with Chesney Senior is a moment of delight. She also made a very good double act with Charlie Clemmow, as Ela, both of them giggling in a co-conspiratorial way at the depths to which the young men are digging holes for themselves. I liked Miss Clemmow’s performance a great deal, as she brought life and depth to the character of Ela, rather than her just being the “third girl”, which it easily can be.
All the actors are splendid though, and the show’s got a great ensemble feel. Dominic Tighe (excellent in Barefoot in the Park earlier this year at Oxford) as Jack is thrusting and imperious as a bossy toffee-nosed undergrad, who goes all matey with his dad when there’s money in the offing; and he too has a very strong stage presence and a crystal clear voice. 1892 is a long time ago; if I’d addressed my scout like that in 1978 I’d have been rusticated. Benjamin Askew’s Charley is a delightful duffer with something of a toned-down version of Harry Enfield’s Tim-Nice-But-Dim to him; he also makes a very good puppy dog when in Amy Spettigue’s presence. As their wannabe girlfriends, both Leah Whitaker and Ellie Beaven are perfectly matched to their chaps; Miss Whitaker credibly providing the bolder approach to proposals, and giving a perfect visual response to being told she’s a brick.
Steven Pacey makes a strong impact as Sir Francis, full of vitality and spark, absolutely the old Indian Colonel and really relishing his lines. “That’s not the way an old soldier makes love” brought the house down. Norman Pace’s Spettigue is a great creation; bombastic at first – Mathew Horne’s giving him short shrift for his rudeness is hilarious – and then later a picture of ridiculous besottedness as he admires and adores every move the fake aunt makes. Fancourt Babberley describes him as looking like a boiled owl and somehow that’s precisely how Mr Pace manages to make himself look. Brilliant stuff. Finally Charles Kay – whose performances I have enjoyed dozens of times over the years – is excellent as Brassett the scout, doing his best to answer the call of His Master’s Voice when necessary but pompously facing down effrontery when required.
It’s a wonderful production, one of the best things we’ve seen at the Menier, and we laughed about it on the train home, which is always a good sign. It surely deserves a transfer after its spell at the Menier. Take the opportunity to catch a great cast do justice to a classic comedy!