Creative Cow, the producing company, has wisely chosen to slim the three-hour farce down a little. It now plays at just over two hours and consequently the comedy comes thick and fast. With a cast of only six it is slightly compromised but still provides enormous fun and great entertainment for the full houses to which it has been playing around the country.
In Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, Jack Chesney and Charley Wykeham are in amorous pursuit of the Misses Kitty Verdun and Amy Spettigue respectively. They invite the girls to luncheon with the express purpose of proposing marriage. But, this being 1892, there must be a chaperone or the ladies will be obliged to refuse the invitation. As luck would have it, Charley’s aunt, the exotically named Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez from Brazil [where the nuts come from] is expected. But when she sends a telegram to indicate that her trip has been delayed, plans are put into disarray until the gentlemen hit upon an idea. Their friend, Lord Fancourt Babberley, must don a dress and assume the aunt’s identity. Madness ensues as a parade of bizarrely English characters traverse the stage and the deception becomes ever more difficult to conceal. And then, notwithstanding the content of her previous communication, the real Donna Lucia arrives.
The plot is, of course, absurd and the characters affectionately written as archetypes. Director Amanda Knott has chosen to caricature the whole business and the actors embrace the opportunity to play with a lightness of touch and an arch complicity with the audience. It is a decision that is vindicated as the bright and breezy performances and the witty cartoon-like nature of the production are rewarded by gales of laughter from the auditorium.
The audience are having such a good time that they are hard pushed to notice that some of the social commentary in this farce is pointed. The play, which pre-dates Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest by only three years, is not as caustically critical of the snobbery and entitlement of privilege but it is not without its targets. Social convention is examined in some detail and is clearly found wanting. Heredity too has fun gently poked at it. As the nineteenth century gives way to the twentieth there is, perhaps, a feeling that this nonsense can’t go on for ever. It took the cataclysm of the Great War to bring the edifice of Victoriana tumbling down. Though inherent in the play itself, these ideas are far away in this production. It is all jolly good knock about fun for an early summer’s evening.
There are some lovely moments. In particular Jack’s proposal scene to Kitty, in which she takes charge, is beautifully handled by Jonathan Parish and Katherine Senior. Senior, in particular, is a talent to watch as she manages the difficult doubling of Kitty and the real Donna Lucia with considerable aplomb. Matthew Townshend has great fun playing three different old men with relish and Harvey Robinson as Fancourt Babberley hits the right note as the reluctant cross-dressing aunt. The cast is completed by Mark Smedley and Kate Sharp who camp it up with enthusiasm
The high point of the whole evening is a very funny, choreographed scene change on the chequerboard set that receives a warm round of applause of its very own. Thomas and Penley would have approved.