Charley's Aunt is, to all intents and purposes, a non-panto panto, and thus perfect Christmas fare. It contains young lovers (several couples) challenged by a villain, comic turns, a mythical setting (for even patrician, Victorian Oxford was never this casually jolly), and, of course, a dame. Unfortunately, it does not actually contain all that many laughs... at least not any more, not for its first half or so. Today, a century after Brandon Thomas wrote it, an audience shows no awareness whatever of the central premise – that, in order for young Jack and Charley to invite their respective beloveds over for lunch without attracting scandal, the ladies need to be chaperoned, hence Lord Fancourt Babberley donning a hairnet and farthingale to pretend to be the aunt of the title. Without a sense of social impropriety running beneath the action, it takes a while (especially when staged, as at Sheffield, with two intervals) to work up sufficient momentum even to become just another farce.
The younger actors in Deborah Paige's cast generally fail to hit the right note for farce; they either concentrate on frenzy to the detriment of conviction in what they are doing, or miss both. Paige's direction, with its flaky grasp of asides and soliloquies as affable chats to the audience, does not help matters. The older players' characterisations show greater consistency and assurance: the comic-cut disagreeableness of David Killick as Stephen Spettigue (guardian and uncle respectively of the young ladies in the case), the slow but sympathetic rumbling of Terry Taplin as Jack's father Sir Francis Chesney, and the sardonic reserve of Sandra Duncan as Donna Lucia, Charley's real aunt. It is a nice, cheeky touch, too, to have the first-act set of a play in the Sheffield Crucible dominated by a full-size snooker table.
Classic musicals also somehow feel traditional enough to be offered as seasonal entertainment; no matter that they may have been conceived and created as films rather than stage shows. Indeed, it is hard to escape the cinematic with Singin' In The Rain; not only does its story concern the birth of the Hollywood talkies, but so many film devices are needed to tell the story... let alone the classic images (yes, we are regaled with both the splashing in puddles during the title number and the walking up the wall in "Make 'Em Laugh"). At Leeds, director Jude Kelly makes extensive use of three huge video screens both as changing backdrops and for the projection of the films supposedly being made. (Philip Franks makes a cameo appearance in the "talkie" demonstration reel.) At times this amounts to unnecessary gimmickry – we really don't need those shimmering figures dancing across the screen behind the flesh-and-blood ones doing the same onstage – but the "proper film" sequences are a treat, distressed with plausible scratches and pops, and even "slipping out of sync" when required.
Paul Robinson as Don Lockwood is painfully aware of comparisons to Gene Kelly; one can hear and see the effort he puts into trying to seem as insouciant as the original. Zoe Hart as Kathy Selden is more a gamine young Mia Farrow than an apple-pie Debbie Reynolds; Mark Channon has "comic best friend" written all over him, and Rebecca Thornhill hits the right excruciating UHF Brooklyn screech as Lina Lamont, the silent star whose voice is too dreadful for talking pictures. With the Playhouse's sprinklers turned full on at the end of each act, and a shallow moat running across the front of the stage, Kelly really ought to equip the first couple of rows of the audience with plastic capes (as Robert Lepage did several years ago for his A Midsummer Night's Dream); apart from that, and Robinson's impossible task in living all the way up to Kelly's magic, this is one great big barrel of fun.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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