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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Menier Chocolate Factory


  Mathew Horne, Leah Whitaker and Ellie Beaven/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

You wouldn't normally call a hoary old comedy that has been regularly wheeled out on to British stages since it was first seen in 1890, brave programming. But because those stages have tended to belong to amateur dramatic societies, and the cross-dressing comedy of the play is as dog-eared as, well, a dog's ear, you have to recognise that it takes guts for professionals to risk reputations on amateur fare.

Brandon Thomas' farce wasn't always seen in that way. He wrote this romp for the music-hall comedian William Sydney Penley, who asked the author for a “pretty little three-act comedy with plenty of fun in it and a touch of sentimentality.” The fun part lies largely in seeing Oxford student toffs Jack Chesney and his chum Charley make utter twits of themselves. They are each in love and need Charley's visiting aunt to serve as chaperone if they are to persuade two girls to join them on what counts as a first date in polite Victorian society. When the visit is postponed, Chesney and Charley press fellow student Lord Babberley into service and an old maid's clothes to take the place of Charley's aunt.

Ian Talbot's production takes place in another Menier miracle of a set design. This one, by Paul Farnsworth, is built of warm Oxford University stone out of which Chesney's university digs are constructed. In the second act it doubles as a university courtyard, and in the third trebles as the opulent home of one of the play's pompous old boys. 

But what gives the evening some spice – and this anodyne play sure needs it – is that Chesney and Charley are uncannily like two other bumbling Oxford alumni: Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron and his fellow Tory Party bigwig (and current Mayor of London) Boris Johnson (Benjamin Askew). Dominic Tighe as Chesney, a student with political aspirations, is particularly spot-on as a nascent Prime Minister Cameron.

The metaphor for the farcical comings and goings of government goes only so far here. In fact, it hardly goes at all. The evening inevitably rests on the ability of a strong cast to impose their talents on a pretty ropey script. To that end, TV comedy actor Matthew Horne as the panicky, cross-dressing Babberley (his old maid's outfit isn't a lifestyle choice but a costume for a forthcoming amateur dramatic performance – oh the irony) darts around the set attempting to escape the amorous clutches of single men in late middle age who want to marry a rich widow. Horne does well to find time among the mayhem for a moment of surprisingly moving reflection about the girl he once loved. As Babberley's alter ego – Charley's real Aunt – Jane Asher glides through the latter half of the plot holding a parasol like one of the women painted by Seurat in the Chocoalte Factory's hit revival of Sunday in The Park with George. Except that Seurat's ladies were a lot more animated than Asher's. 

Much more animated is a superb and deadpan Steven Pacey, who does wonders as Chesney's well-adjusted father. Willing to marry the fake Charley's Aunt in order to restore the family's finances, Pacey's elder Chesney pauses to think about the prospect of consummation, a thought that sends his body into a convulsion of revulsion. It's the kind of performance that you just wouldn't get in an amateur dramatics performance. It is more than Thomas's play deserves.


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