Review: Charley’s Aunt, Menier Chocolate Factory

“I am not an ordinary woman”

Between balancing requests for reviews and selecting what other plays I want to actually see, it is a rare occasion that I actually attend the theatre as someone else’s guest for a show of their own choosing. But in order to see an old university friend and Dominic Tighe (only one of these was actually sat next to me though), my Sunday afternoon was spent at the Menier Chocolate Factory to see the Victorian farce Charley’s Aunt.

It is little secret that I am no great fan of a farce, though I have been trying my best to being open to having my mind changed, but this isn’t the one to force a reappraisal of the genre. It is what it is, a cross-dressing, slapstick-filled riot of an occasion – revived here by Ian Talbot – which sets its stall out from the very beginning with a character mugging for laughs.

And laughs aplenty he got, if not necessarily from me, in this tale of three Oxford university student toffs determined not to let anything get in the way of their amorous plans. But when Jack and Charley’s chances look like being scuppered by the non-arrival of chaperone Donna Lucia, the titular elderly aunt, they prevail upon their friend Fanny Babs (Sir Fancourt Babbeley natch) to impersonate her to ensure the romancing can take place. Predictably, this leads to capers and misunderstandings as the mistaken identity crisis comes to a head with the entrance of the real Donna Lucia. 

Paul Farnsworth’s design is deliciously lavish for such a venue, especially as it changes, but Talbot’s production is rather straightforward elsewhere, an uncomplicated rendition of this heightened fare centred on a man in a dress. Mat Horne is that man, and plays it well for laughs, especially when fighting off the attentions of the older gentlemen in the group. Tighe and Benjamin Askew as the upper class twits ensure we’re laughing at rather than with them (even when the writing doesn’t always seem that way) and Jane Asher is good fun, though under-used, as the genuine aunt.

But though many found it uproarious, my funny-bone remained largely untickled. There’s something about comedy presented this way that is so heavy-handed that just leaves me cold, I’d rather find things funny on my own terms. I can’t lie and say that I never cracked a smile here – there are some moments that are close to hilarious – but it was a long time coming as the first act is rather strained in its slow set-up of events. And Brandon Thomas’ writing lacks the acerbity to make Charley’s Aunt really zing over and above the slapstick antics. So it wasn’t really for me, but then we all knew that anyway! And it was good to catch up with one of the few people who know what my current Twitter avatar really refers to 😉

Running time 2 hours 30 minutes (with 2 intervals)
Booking until 10th November

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