‘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.

Gaslight’s grip

Gaslight (Growl Theatre)

Windsor School of the Arts

May 6 – 21

Gaslighting is a deceptive psychological manipulation, usually practiced by a single deceiver, or gaslighter, on a single victim over an extended period. And before the term became embedded in our modern vernacular, there was the 1944 film “Gaslight”, based on Patrick Hamilton’s enduring 1938 British psychological stage thriller.

The play’s inspiration as terminology for this type of emotional abuse term is clear from the initial scene of Growl Theatre’s production, when, in an 1880 upper middle class, dimly-lit drawing room, the controlling Jack Manningham (Troy Bullock) questions his flustered and confused wife Bella’s (Vivien Whittle) actions. “What are you doing Bella?” starts a series of questions, demands, dismissals and accusations of confusion of her mind. As the room’s gaslights are turned up, his trifling inappropriate commentary to serving girl Nancy (Sara-Maree Sommerville) shows how he really is a horrible character and Bullock makes him an appropriately loathsome epitome of destructive toxicity, given that he is using his complete authority to slowly, deliberately drive his wife insane… that is until a stranger comes to the house while Jack is on another of his mysterious outings.

The sinister story’s 2.5 hours’ duration is a long time to spend in the company of Jack and his domestic abuse, especially given that the entire play is set in one room over a single evening, however, Brendan James and Charles Langford’s direction of its three tightly-structure acts (with two intervals), ensures that engagement is maintained. Reprieve from Jack’s wicked psychological torture comes thanks to the arrival of Detective Rough (Brad Ashwood), a whiskey-wielding saviour who encourages the close-to-breaking-point Bella to see the light (#nopunintended). The backstory unfolds as the retired police detective explains the reason behind her notice that when her husband leaves the house each night, the gaslights in the drawing room mysteriously dim, however, as the lights go down in mark of the show’s first interval, an ominous atmosphere settles along with his warning that “you are married to a horribly dangerous gentleman”.

Solid performances elevate the production. Marion Jones projects the kindness of dutiful servant Elizabeth in her few scene appearances, while Sommmerville’s giggling Act One cheeky flirtations as the saucy Nancy, effectively foreshadow things to come. And, as the charismatic Inspector Rough, who puts the pieces of the Manningham puzzle together, Ashwood is triumphant in delivery of some of the script’s best lines. Bullock is solid as the stern and overbearing Jack. Indeed, the powerful intimidation of his patronising presence as he strides about on stage contributes much to the tension of Act Three.

This is, however, Bella’s story and appropriately, Whittle’s show. Whether bustling about in fleeting, naive belief that all is well or blubbering after being raged at about ambiguous issues apparently of her imagining, she is simply wonderful as the vulnerable, tormented and humiliated Bella. And her depiction of Bella’s genuine joy at discovery that her truth is indeed valid is wonderfully portrayed, with empathy but not overplayed.  

“Gaslight” is a gripping journey to a satisfying conclusion, made all the better by its bring of the work’s feminist themes to the forefront. The melodramatic thriller is full of suspense and surprise (beyond its contemporary relevance), but also humour and fun, and it is easy to appreciate why so many shows of its Growl Theatre season are sold out.

Downstairs at Darcy’s

The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley (Growl Theatre)

Windsor School of the Arts

November 19 – December 12

The concept of “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” is clear from the outset of Growl Theatre’s production of the charming Christmas-themed story. The Regency-era romance takes its audience immediately into the downstairs kitchen world of The Wickhams of Jane Austen’s classic novel of manners “Pride and Prejudice”, where nothing ever changes…. until it does when the household staff encounter a holiday scandal while the Bennetts and Darcys are celebrating upstairs during a festive time of puddings with raisins and many, many orangey biscuits

As a companion piece to the company’s 2020 Christmas production, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley”, the show, likewise, represents a continuation of Austen’s popular novel. Elizabeth (Melanie Kempton) and Darcy (Ewan Paterson) are married and living at his grand country estate Pemberley, where her sister Lydia (Bella Mott) is joining them for Christmas. Enter an uninvited late-night visitor in the form of Mr Darcy’s infamous sworn enemy and Lydia’s horribly flawed husband George Wickham (a cheekily charismatic Tyler Harris) and busy holiday preparations must be balanced with keeping his presence undiscovered, all while being interrupted by a parade of guests from upstairs.

The addition of new secrets to old misunderstandings soon sees things start to spiral out of control to great comic effect. Indeed, written as it is in regency style, the text includes both the entanglements and ironic and satirical style of humour that typifies Austen’s work. But there are also moral considerations such as the conflict between generosity or judgement. And, in addition to offering commentaries on class and privilege, there are also warm and fuzzy themes around family and forgiveness, suited to the festive season’s sentiments.

The production, like the estate is helmed by earnest, no-nonsense housekeeper Mrs Reynolds (an endearing Dale Murison). Of most early note, however, is the appearance of the resilient young serving girl Cassie, newly hired to help prepare the house for its many festive season guests. Ciara-Mei Cheng is simply wonderful as the fiercely independent young orphan, full of feminism and speaking the most sense of anyone. Her budding romance with childhood friend, Head Footman and part-time inventor Brian (Sam Hocking), also layers the story with tension as the audience looks upon his fixation with fondness, thanks to Hocking’s nervous energy and well-placed smitten smiles.

Paterson is appropriately stately in stature and demeaner as the now somewhat less aloof Darcy, while as the heroine of Austen’s novel, Kempton casts a calming demeaner over things, even when torn between loyalty to her husband and sister. And Mott is perfect as the flighty, flibbertigibbet Lydia, the most adventurous and first to marry of the Bennett girls, giving the reckless and impulsive youngest sister some depth in her conversations with Cassie, vulnerability in interaction with George and ultimate development of her own sense of self.

Aside from some lengthy pauses in scene transitions, “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” is a well-crafted welcome back to Regency-era romance, with notable of-era costumes (design by Anne Grant) and staging (set design by Jason Sharland). While of course appreciation of its nuances will come more easily to literary fans of Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, the relationships and emerging plots are clear enough for anyone to follow and its playfully feminist spirit is sufficiently embedded for everyone to appreciate.

Flying hijinks

Boeing Boeing (Growl Theatre)

Windsor School of Arts

August 20 – September 4

With its ‘In Flight Bar’ signage, row of mock aeroplane window views and pre-show flight announcements, Growl Theatre’s “Boeing Boeing” has the potential to be a depressing experience given the current state of our travel-less world, however, any such woe is quickly forgotten as the show starts and we learn of its story as Paris-based American businessman Bernard (Jon Darbro) shares his dilemma with visiting friend and wanna-be house guest Robert (Emile Regano).

Bernard’s smug playboy lifestyle is very much of its 1960s era, to the extent that he is currently juggling love affairs with three women… all international flight attendants (or hostesses as they were called back in that day). His life is one of perpetual motion until some pesky airline schedule changes bring it to an abrupt stop. And what ensues is a slapstick romp as his three fiancés, the American Gloria (Rhiannon Said), the Italian Gabriella (Victoria Little) and the German Gretchen (Liana Hanson), all touch down briefly in Paris and head to his apartment at the same time.

Though it is clear from early on as to how the French farce is going to unfold, its unravel is still highly entertaining, thanks to Brendan James and Charles Langford’s tight direction and the precise performances of those in the ensemble cast. Of particular note, Hanson is solid as the intense German air hostess Gretchen, with perfectly executed comic interjections. And Marion Jones is simply wonderful as Bernard’s belligerent, mature French maid Berthe who begrudgingly undertakes her duties, including ensuring that the three mistresses remain blissfully ignorant as to each other’s existence. Indeed, from her very first appearance on stage, she gets a laugh from virtually evey line of her ever no-nonsense dialogue and accompanying scornful facial expressions.

The majority of the funny, however, comes from Regano’s perfectly-pitched performance as Robert, Bernard’s old school friend, who gets himself into a hilarious state as he frantically attempts to conceal his friend’s affairs, while also trying to pursue a love interest of his own. And it is through him that the comedy ultimately crescendos to a farce of slamming doors and, as proof that timing really is everything in comedy, perfectly choreographed and executed near-misses of comings and goings (helped along by Bernard and Robert’s reactions).

The play by French playwright Marc Camoletti, whose English-language adaptation was first staged in London in 1962 is very much of its swinging ‘60s era, which is nicely reflected in the production’s staging and set dressing details, down to the retro pineapple ice bucket placed upon the apartment’s bar and the TWA et al travel bags carried by Berndard’s revolving door ladies. The tone is similarly clearly of its particular time and place with naughty “Allo Allo” type gags that don’t require too much thought to appreciate.

Certainly, there are ways in which the romp of “Boeing Boeing” has not aged well when considered through a contemporary cancel-culture lens. Its characters are one-dimensional and some of its comedy comes from cultural clichés and casual pats on the bum (though this is, in part, balanced by the ultimate self-determination of take-charge American fiancé Gloria). However, its laughs come more from the finely-honed rhythm of its physical comedy and comic timing, and the laughs come aplenty, which makes the comedic farce the crowd pleaser that we probably need right now.

Typical Tennessee and then some

Suddenly Last Summer (Growl Theatre)

Windsor School of Arts Hall

August 15 – 29

The setting of Growl Theatre’s production of Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer” is a lush jungle-garden of violent colours and both deceptive beauty and foreshadowing savagery, signalled in its accompanying soundscape and a central, insectivorous Venus flytrap. The garden hothouse staging comes complete with white wicker furniture, park bench seating and a wheelchair, which belongs to Mrs Violet Venable (Jenny Bonney-Millett), an elderly socialite widow from a prominent New Orleans family.

The obviously wilful wealthy matriarch is a formidable grande dame who vainly refuses to admit that she suffered a mild stroke the previous year, ending her cherished role as her only son Sebastian’s travelling companion. With put-upon secretary Miss Foxhill (Betsy Appelhof) by her side, she can now only recount stories of their summer sojourns with hyperbolic nostalgia. There is, however, no hope of return to their happy days as ‘Violet and Sebastian’, given Sebastian’s recent sudden death. Now she focuses instead on her feelings of jealousy towards his replacement travelling companion, cousin Catharine Holly (Bianca Butler Reynolds).

Acid-tongued in her talk of Catharine, Violet gushes in worship of Sebastian, telling visiting Doctor Cukrowicz (Daren King) how her son was chaste, spelled c-h-a-s-t-e not chased, but he was chased too, by pursuers of his good looks. Clearly this portrait of her son is oblivious to the indiscrete reality of the man behind the mask of disguise he wears in the photos that serve as her now-treasured possessions. While this initial establishment is important, however, her early scenes serve more as monologue, making for a meandering beginning to an otherwise taut work.

The story Violet tells is that of her unpublished poet son (a central character that never actually appears on stage) who died unexpectedly while on vacation with cousin Catharine as companion. Upon returning, Catharine’s story of Sebastian’s death was considered so disturbing that she has been sent to an institution, funded by Violet. Troubled by Catharine’s ramblings, Violet has called upon Doctor Cukrowicz who specialises in lobotomies, in a quest to protect her family name from the ravages of a sordid story.

The conflict is complicated by Violet’s need to obtain Catherine’s mother’s (Marion Jones) permission for the operation, which she achieves by threatening to delay probate on Sebastian’s will, in which he has left a considerable amount of money to Catherine and her simple and selfish brother, George (Lachlan Driscoll) …. hence their summons to her Garden District mansion, along with Catherine, who remains under the ever-watchful eye of her authoritarian minder Sister Felicity (Libby Scales). As the doctor interviews Violet and Catharine (and injects Catharine with a truth serum) the scandalous story of Sebastian’s moral dissolution unravels towards shocking revelation of what really happened to him suddenly last summer.

Though middle scenes see the production’s seven players finally on stage together, engagement is enhanced through the standout performances of siblings George and Catherine. Bianca Butler Reynolds, in particular, gives a compelling wide-eyed tormented performance in Catharine’s histrionic monologue retell of what happened, in what is a terrible but also terribly convincing story of how Sebastian’s carnal desires came undone in Frankenstein’s monster-like mythology.

The story is set in 1938 Louisiana, and the cast handles the play’s challenging southern accents with ease, even if not the needed projection to guide the audience through the story’s orientation, which is particularly noticeable given its typically Tennessee Williams dialogue heaviness. While “Suddenly Last Summer” is of a more palatable length than his iconic “A Streetcar Named Desire”, the playwright’s other trademarks all still make appearance … from lyrical language and metaphor, to oppressive sticky weather of the sort that makes men dab at their brow with folded handkerchief and tragic, psychologically disturbed characters.  

Experience of the Gothic mystery is a powerfully intense one, enhanced by knowledge that, just as Williams based his memory play, “The Glass Menagerie”, on his own family, this one act work is also personal, given his issues around his mother and her sudden decision to have his sister lobotomised, as well as his personal guilt over his own inaction. While it might have been controversial for its time, when written in 1957, decades later, in Growl Theatre’s hands, the play’s exploration of the light and shadow of acceptance resonates with message about how the haunted side of human nature can destroy those around us.