Brandon Thomas’ Charley’s Aunt seems, at first, a natural choice for the Merton Floats’ garden play. It is easy to imagine characters like Lord Fancourt Babberley once walking through the surrounding halls, even in the play’s late Victorian setting is the fictional St Olde’s college. There is no attempt to hide the ironies of this production, and even the script seems to be in on the joke: a guffaw of laughter greeted the line, “These amateur theatricals have taken up a great deal of my time, but next term I really intend to do some work.” This sentiment, delivered as much to a sympathetic audience as to the other characters on stage, really exposes the light-hearted tone of this production. It is important to note that from the opening moments of this play it is clear the aim is not, and never will be, serious.
Indeed, when it becomes apparent that the play revolves around the adoption of drag by the aforementioned ‘Babbs,’ it’s easy to feel caught in a cross between Oscar Wilde and P.G. Wodehouse. The script doesn’t quite hit those heights, and a lot of the initial parody is lost through the slight detachment of the actors from their roles. The play may be a farce, but the humour should stem from the actors’ unbelievable stupidity. At times it feels a tad over-rehearsed, reactions coming before they are due, but at others quite the opposite is true. In the first scene between Jack Chesney, played by Max Mills, and his scout, Brassett, the characterisation of Jack was undermined when couldn’t remember his lines. Since the part of Brassett was taken up by Frederick Macmillan only a few days before the preview, such slips are understandable, but it still left Jack looking more like an abusive master than the charming foppish type his is meant to be. Mills hits his stride later on and his comic potential is best presented in the scene between Jack and his father, where he and Joshua Harris-Kirkwood pull off extraordinary similarity of physicality and facial expressions as they each push the other towards marrying a millionaire.
As the title suggests, the play hangs on the mysterious Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez, though not the one you might expect from the program. Instead Babbs, played with aplomb by Peter Swann, takes the role and performs it with a clownish comedy that holds the humour of the first act together where it threatens to wear thin. Switching between soap opera melodrama and cavalier flippancy at the drop of a hat (or the retention of it by ill mannered guardians), Swann challenges Mills’ position as the hero of the play with an easy charm. Indeed, with such loud characters dominating the stage the quiet, tentative performance given by Charles O’Halloran as Charley is welcome and provides some genuinely touching notes. The cast is certainly talented, yet there always seems some distance between the actors and the characters they play, as though they have forgotten that they are supposed to be showing us the comedy of them, not telling us. Occasionally the upper-class accents adopted all-round fall through, and some performances drop a little when not centre-stage. However, these problems are all minor, and could be ironed out over the next week before the play opens if Finola Austin proves as thorough a director as she appears. I have no doubt it will end up a pleasant evening of levity. Just don’t expect it to be serious.