‘Familial’ funniness

Charley’s Aunt (Growl Theatre)

Windsor School of the Arts

August 5 – 20

The Victorian play “Charley’s Aunt”, first presented in 1892 England, is the type of show that Growl Theatre has proven it does well. This classic evergreen farce is set in Oxford during the 1890s when a chaperone is needed in order for two English gentlemen, Oxford undergraduates Jack Chesney (Tyler Harris) and Charley Wykeham (Brendan R Burman-Bellenger), to court their crushes Amy Spettigue (Ashlee McCreanor) and Kitty Verdun (Mollie Ashworth), respectively the niece and ward of solicitor Stephen Spettigue (Brad Ashworth). Thankfully, the visit of Charles’ widowed aunt from Brazil (“where the nuts come from”), Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez, provides an opportunity for this to occur. However, when a telegram arrives postponing Donna Lucia’s visit, the men are in a panic due to their plans to propose, so persuade their amicable friend Lord Fancourt Babberly, (Brendan James), or Babs for short, to don a dress and masquerade as the absent aunt. Cue some ensuring complications, especially when Babberly’s own love interest, Ela Delahay (Sophia Rayne), and the real Donna Lucia (Fiona Manders) arrive.

It is very much a play of its time, and, with a vintage plot full of mistaken identities and outrageous coincidences, there is a real “The Importance of Being Earnest” feel to things as both Stephen Spettigue and Jack’s father Sir Frances Chesney (Jason Sharland) turn their romantic attentions to ‘Donna Lucia’ for financial reasons. Things move swiftly under Aerlyn O’Brien’s direction through the details and timing of the comic farce and slapstick humour associated with the story’s continuing complications. There are a lot of comings and goings and general ridiculousness in rushing about the space created by Scott Bagnell’s set design, which is effectively choreographed and, after the stage is reset at interval into a garden setting, the action reaches out into the aisles of the audience which works well.

The success of the play also relies of the timing and tenor of its performances and the manner in which the actors work together to make the etiquette of the era and the story’s farcical deceptions frantic, is impressive. As theatre genres go, farce is one of the toughest to realise, and the show’s performers work well to bring the required comic skill and well-timed physicality to their respective roles.

The success of the show rests largely upon the performance of James as the reluctant alleged aunt and his lively performance in this demanding role is spot on. His comedy is that of little looks and reactions as much as obvious physical gags as ‘Donna Lucia’ relishes the opportunity to share the girls’ confidence and affection. Indeed, he gives a balanced, nuanced performance in what could easily have been overplayed into pure pantomime (though elements of pantomime do exist in O’Brien’s take on the play, such as to-audience asides and reactions).

Similarly noteworthy is Ewan Paterson, who gives Jack’s manservant Brassett a delightful knowing quality in what is also a performance of little details as he makes sardonic observations, stiffly struts about only bending at the waist and later sneaks some of the afternoon tea treats as audience to the unfolding shenanigans. McCreanor and Ashworth, meanwhile, also offer great comic timing, including in unison, as characters who are in many ways smarter than their beaus as they knowingly flirt their way towards their desired outcome.

With such talents in its realisation, this “Charley’s Aunt” is a very entertaining theatre outing, easy to watch, follow and enjoy, despite the script’s occasional wordiness. In Growl Theatre’s capable hands, the charming comedic adventure to Victorian-era Oxford is classic farce… spirted, rompy and full of fun, tempoed energy for anyone looking for a light-hearted laugh.

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