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Charley's Aunt at Manchester Royal Exchange

Published by: Caroline May on 30th Jun 2010 | View all blogs by Caroline May

If a picture is worth a thousand words then the accompanying production shot should tell you a great deal about Brandon Thomas’s 1892 farce Charley’s Aunt, which has just opened at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.  If you examine the photograph carefully you will notice that Oliver Gomm, who might be said to share the title role, is not playing a conventional Victorian widow.  But then, Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez is, in her own words, “no ordinary woman”.

Dating from the same period as The Importance of Being Earnest and the Savoy operas, Charley’s Aunt is every bit their equal for verbal dexterity, ridiculous situations and favourite stock characters - the silly-ass lord, the tyrannical uncle and the gauche lover are all present and correct.

The simple premise - two Oxford students invite their prospective fiancées to lunch and require a chaperone at short notice - is complicated by (among other accidentals) a jealous guardian, an impoverished (but titled) father, and the imminent arrival of a millionaire aunt who has never met her orphaned nephew because she’s been living in Brazil - “where the nuts come from”.  And in the best tradition of English farce there’s plenty of elaborate business, clowning about and slap-stick. 

Oliver Gomm is lovably daft as Lord Fancourt Babberley, and his virtuosic comedy cadenza with the piano in Act 3 earned him a round of applause on press night.  Stephen Hudson as the put-upon valet Brassett acts as a kind of world-weary Chorus, Malcolm Rennie is terrifyingly pop-eyed as the apoplectic Uncle Spettigue, and Briony McRoberts is charming and mischievous as the relative from the New World.

Director Braham Murray has slightly updated the setting to the 1920s for no discernable reason, although it is to the detriment of the plot device: the extremities of Victorian propriety might necessitate a cross-dressing chaperone, but the Bright Young Things of Brideshead-era Oxford could happily have managed without.  And if the intention was to give a Wodehousian flavour to the proceedings it doesn’t work because the most of the playing is far too naturalistic.  But at least the business is performed with flair and fluency, and all the physical comedy is first-rate.

Designer Johanna Bryant gives us three delightful sets, and the ladies’ flapper costumes are ravishing.  Truly, if the Royal Exchange were ever to go up in flames it would be the wardrobe department that I would rush in and save.

Those who have seen Charley’s Aunt before know it’s one of the English stage’s most copper-bottomed comedy classics, a treat never to be missed, and will already have booked their seats.  If you haven’t seen it before then you should make arrangements to remedy this situation as soon as possible. 


Charley’s Aunt is on until Saturday 7 August 2010

Prices: £8.50-£29.50

Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm [no performance Tues 6 July]

Matinees: Wed @ 2.30pm, Sat @ 4pm and Tues 6 July @ 2.30pm

Box Office: 0161 833 9833



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