Classic with the feel-good factor

Charley's Aunt @ Theatre Royal, Norwich

Charley's Aunt @ Theatre Royal, Norwich


Charley's Aunt is much more than a splendidly enduring comedy. It is also a vibrant comic vehicle which responds generously and wholeheartedly to whatever interpretations are imposed upon it.

So though it is, and always will be, a great comedy classic, it obligingly at the Theatre Royal this week accepts a motley cloak of many colours: farce, pantomime, stand-up music-hall – and yes, a vein of real comedy too.

Result: last night's full house roared its approval at final curtain. And by then, even this reviewer, veteran of many productions of Brandon Thomas's feel-good masterpiece, was happy to put by most of his cavils and join zestfully in the applause.

This production looks a treat, with engaging sets and a blue-skied panorama of dreaming Oxford spires; and elegant costumes wholly true to the period. But, appealing as its cast undoubtedly is, it took some time to get into its stride, held back by some heavy-handed direction – and by that cavalier mix of theatrical species.

Most Read

In particular, it took a winning chance in casting that adorable, wonderfully funny entertainer Eric Sykes as Brassett, a College Scout -quite apart from giving him a few dozen lines which Brandon Thomas never wrote; and a good few more which Mr Sykes made up himself.

Sykes takes wicked advantage of this freedom, throws in visual gags with abandon, talks to the audience like an Edwardian music hall comic, goes way, way over the top – and we adore it, because Sykes is of that old school which knows infallibly how to manipulate us effortlessly, and with our willing compliance.

Another big bonus is that in casting Neil Mullarkey as Lord Fancourt Babberley - he who dons frock and petticoats as the eponymous Charley's Aunt – this production has a comedy actor with a sense of humour to match the text, a wonderfully malleable face and, not least, an enviable sense of timing.

He carries off with honours a particularly hilarious visual gag when, while pouring tea (still in the guise of Donna Lucia, the Lady from Brazil) he spots “baddie” Mr Spettigue's top hat, conveniently upturned. Thereupon, he goes through delicious indecision as he longs to pour tea into it, and finally gives way to the act. It happens, unseen by nine other characters on stage, which adds to the humour. In common with many others last night, I laughed until the tears ran.

Dillie Keane plays the real Donna Lucia, with a reserved sang froid alternating with ladylike simpers. She also corpses (laughs when she shouldn't orter) at the top-hat-tea routine, which Lucia is supposed not to notice.

The girls are delightful, their beaux fit the picture like images stepped from sepia photos; and the mature gentlemen of the tale trumpet the good news that old violins can still play some of the best tunes.

So Charley's Aunt triumphs again, a tonic of an evening from which one emerges “feeling good”!