Touring; seen at Richmond Theatre
April, 2007

There are two crucial requirements for the performance of farce. One is that the physical business, the ballet of increasing frenzy and absurdity, be executed with flair and precision. On this score Mel Smith's second production of Charley's Aunt (he directed a fondly remembered version in 1983 with Griff Rhys Jones in the cross-dressing title role) scores highly. When Lord Fancourt Babberley attempts to borrow several bottles of his friends' champagne, the business with the bottle-filled bag is as crisp and complex as a vaudeville hat-swapping routine; when Babberley is prevailed upon to don a dress and act as chaperone to his pals' respective beloveds, Smith and actor Stephen Tompkinson get great mileage out of his relish in their displays of girlish affection.

The other vital ingredient is that actors should seem to believe in their characters and situations. Obviously, one can't play Brandon Thomas's 1892 piece as if it were Strindberg, but if all words and actions are cartooned even when the immediate action does not licence it, then all we are left with is, to use the argot the play, a lot of chaps acting the giddy ass. My heart sank when the curtain rose to reveal David Partridge's Jack Chesney in amorous soliloquy, already saucer-eyed and speaking straight out to the audience. (At several moments, too, one or more actors "clock" the audience knowingly, with the worst kind of it's all-just-pretend-really smugness.)

The linchpin is the actor playing Babberley. Tompkinson throws himself into the business, but hurls his voice and face around to a similar degree. A few years ago in Arsenic And Old Lace, I thought his performance wildly misjudged; I am afraid that this outing confirms that he simply does not understand farce, mistakenly thinking that size is all that's important. He can wring ten or fifteen seconds out of a pause before the mock-aunt's catchphrase about being from Brazil, "Where the nuts come from", and one of the earliest occurrences is already so huge as to make "A handbag?!" sound like Gregorian chant. You get a lot of bang for your buck, to be sure, but without any targeting, it amounts to a comedic scorched-earth operation.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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