Stage Door Review

Charley’s Aunt

Thursday, July 29, 2021

✭✭

by Brandon Thomas, directed by Tim Carroll

Shaw Festival, The BMO Stage, Niagara-on-the-Lake

July 25-31, 2021;

Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake 

August 8-October 10, 2021

Lord Fancourt: “I didn't make a fool of the fool, you fool!”

Last year the Shaw Festival strung patrons along for the whole season with promises of productions to come. In the end all productions were cancelled as one might have expected from the approach of other theatre companies to the Covid pandemic. This year after cancelling one production and postponing the start of the season, the Shaw Festival is actually presenting plays in various tents on its grounds. The third of these productions to open is Charley’s Aunt, the venerable Victorian farce. The play impresses as always with the clever perfection of its construction, but the outdoor presentation is far from ideal and the level of the performances is uneven.

Charley’s Aunt (1892) is the most successful Victorian farce ever written. In its day Brandon Thomas’s play broke the record for longest-running play worldwide. It has played and been revived in virtually all the countries of Europe including Russian and has been a hit in China as well as in India in both Marathi and Urdu. In has been adapted as a film innumerable times, from the Italian La zia di Carlo in 1911 to the Chinese Li Cha’s Aunt (李茶的姑妈in 2018.

One of the reasons for the play’s long-lived success not just in Anglophone countries but internationally is Thomas’s brilliant construction of the play’s ingeniously symmetrical structure. Two penniless male students at Oxford – Jack Chesney (Peter Fernandes) and Charley Wykeham (Andrew Lawrie) – are in love with two young women – Kitty Verdun (Marla McLean) and Amy Spettigue (Aexis Gordon) – but due to their inability to express emotion, cannot bring themselves to propose to either. To help each couple find time alone for a proposal, the young men invite their college friend Lord Fancourt Babberley (Mike Nadajewski) to a party. Fancourt is meant to occupy Charley’s millionaire aunt, long resident in Brazil, Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez (Claire Jullien), who is due to arrive in Oxford.

Unluckily, Donna Lucia sends Charley a note that she will be delayed in meeting him. Since the two young women refuse to meet the two young men without a female chaperone, Jack, in Donna Lucia’s absence, is forced to introduce Fancourt, who is trying out women’s garb for a school play, as Charley’s aunt.

All goes splendidly. The two young women choose the fausse Donna Lucia as their confidante and Donna Lucia does separate the two couples to help the young men effect a proposal. An unforeseen complication is that Jack’s father (Patrick Galligan) and Amy’s uncle (Ric Reid), both widowers and eyeing marriage with the widow Donna Lucia as the solution to all financial problems, pursue her. The fausse Donna Lucia thus becomes the centre of a constellation of six characters – friend of the two young men, confidante of the two young women and love interest of the two older men. The arrival of the real Donna Lucia and her ward Ela (Gabriea Sundhar Singh) forces this seven-point constellation to regroup into an alignment of four couples by excluding the comedy’s main blocking figure.

Farces depend not on words but actions and situations and Thomas’s clever step-by-step working into this complex symmetrical situation and it development into another more conventional symmetrical situation is a pleasure to behold. Compared with Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest of 1895, which may have been influenced by the symmetry of Thomas’s plot, Thomas’s dialogue itself is unremarkable. The humour in Thomas’s play depends entirely on the manipulation of plot. Former Shaw Festival Artistic Director Christopher Newton used to precede the Festival’s performances of farce with a speech proclaiming farce the most difficult dramatic genre to bring off since it is the most theatrical. Everything depends on who does what when with little reliance on witty dialogue or complex characters to help.

As a Victorian farce Charley’s Aunt will be a perfect fit for the Royal George Theatre (built in 1915), the closest the Festival has to an actual Victorian theatre. The Shaw production of the play transfers there August 8 to October 10. Until then, the play is being stage outdoors at the BMO Stage, comprising a canopy covering a raised stage and another covering the audience.

The relation of the stage to the audience is most peculiar. The stage is needlessly almost 20 feet away from the front row of the audience but, worse, as it is currently configured, the stage and the audience seating are not aligned. Only one fourth of the audience look straight ahead into the stage. The other three-fourths have to sit at at least a 45º angle to see into it. This problem could easily have been solved if someone had swung the stage 45º so that the stage opening faced west and reorganized the seats to face directly into the stage.

Besides this, designer Christine Lohre has decided to hide the back entrance to the stage with what looks like a line of old sheets. This and the collection of second-hand furniture immediately gives the show the look of an amateur production even though the top ticket price of $135 would lead one to expect better.

Fortunately, the level of acting of the majority of the cast is of the highest level. One can’t help notice, however, a split between the abilities of the more experienced members of the cast and the less experienced. The role of Jack Chesney is second only in importance to that of Fancourt Babberley. In farce timing is everything and Peter Fernandes, who plays, Jack is clearly relying mostly on the dialogue to get the comedy across rather than the timing of the dialogue and his actions. Pauses and hesitations in the right places can make Thomas’s otherwise unremarkable lines utterly hilarious. This is especially true in Jack’s ridiculous wooing scene with Kitty in which he continuously praises himself in asides although we see that he achieves virtually nothing in realty. By not speaking his lines with enough nuance Fernandes misses one chance after another to bring out the folly of Jack’s self-delusion.

Andrew Lawrie plays Jack’s friend Charley’s, the more sensible of the two. Lawrie’s finest moment is when Charley can’t stand Babberley’s deception anymore and calls it out. What would make this outburst stronger is if Lawrie showed us more clearly how Charley’s outrage was slowly simmering all along until it finally came to a boil.

Gabriella Sundar Singh is exactly the sweet young thing we imagine Ela Delahay to be. Singh gives a lovely account of Ela’s poetic impression of Oxford, but, strangely enough,  her expression of joy at meeting her long lost love comes off as nearly incomprehensible.

Luckily, the rest of the roles are in surer hands. Mike Nadajewski is an excellent choice for Fancourt Babberley. Nadajewski has a knack for lending an ironic or disdainful tone to the simplest phrases, an ability he unleashes with full force all through the play. There is an especially funny moment when Fancourt has to decide in an instant what voice Charley’s aunt will use in speaking and after a weak attempt at falsetto, decides on his regular deep baritone. What I would have liked was a more complex depiction of how Fancourt settles into his role as Charley’s aunt. His initial struggle against the role is clear, but we should see how gradually he begins to enjoy the female attention he receives and then his wicked sense of fun when he leads along both Sir Francis Wykeham and Stephen Spettigue. Nadajewski does manage Fancourt’s encounter with the real Donna Lucia superbly in his alternation of hauteur and abashment.

Neil Barclay is wonderful as Jack’s butler Brassett. Barclay can get a laugh simply by statelily walking across the stage after Jack and Charley have been floundering about. Barclay gives Brassett a complete imperturbability in the face of chaos that is simply delightful. It reminds one of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves, except that this servant considers himself so superior to his master that he’s quite willing to watch him sail into disaster.

Patrick Galligan and Ric Reid make a fine pair of contrasting codgers. Galligan’s Sir Francis is kind and concerned while Reid’s Spettigue is rough and vindictive. Galligan’s Sir Francis accepts defeat in love whereas Reid Spettigue is enraged. One suspects that Reid’s Spettigue is not so much in love with the fausse Donna Lucia’s money as angered that he can’t something he wants. Fancourt claims that Spettigue looks like a “boiled owl”. That may seem fanciful on the page, but Reid succeeds in making the comparison vividly apt.

Marla McLean and Alexis Gordon are really no longer the age to be playing ingenues. McLean played a formidable Lady Mayoress in Getting Married and Gordon played the unhappy Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins for the Grand Theatre both in 2019. Nevertheless, both are such fine actors they are perfectly believable in their roles. In fact, because of their experience both are able to make these young women more complex beings than Thomas perhaps intended. In the famous wooing scene between Jack and Kitty in Act 2, McLean makes it perfectly clear that Kitty loves Jack so much that she tolerates his repeated botched attempts at a proposal and teases him to distraction until at last she has to propose for him.

Claire Jullien makes a strong impression as the real Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez, who quickly senses why their should be an impostor on the premises and has wiles enough to play along with the game of deceit she finds everyone else involved in. Her interrogation of the fausse Donna Lucia is hilarious and demonstrates as Thomas seems to prove throughout the play that it is women who have a greater store of wit and intelligence than men.

Having seen the Festival’s previous production of Charley’s Aunt in directed by Susan Cox in 1992, I know that with the right direction this apparent piece of Victorian fluff can be a rollicking good time. As mentioned above, timing and pace are everything in farce and director Tim Carroll seems unable to achieve either in this production.

In his stage directions, Thomas notes that Jack “must have ‘drive’; as he sets the pace of the play”. It is not Peter Fernandes’s fault that this is not at all how the production comes across. Rather, under Carroll’s direction, the events of the play have no forward momentum and rather appear as a series of separate accidents that happen to the characters rather than a plot which they, perhaps vainly, are trying to control. Much of the humour of the play derives from how the young men cope with the constant set-backs to their plan. But for that to work we have to have the clear notion that the men are actually trying to achieve something and that the forward pace of the events is so swift that they frequently come close to losing all control. Unfortunately under Carroll none of this urgency which gives the comedy so much piquancy ever comes through.

I applaud the Shaw Festival’s decision to programme a play not only from the Festival’s original mandate but from the 19th century which rather too often receives short shrift even though Shaw (born 1856) lived nearly half his life in that period. There is a vast variety of plays from the 19th century awaiting discovery and revival. Yet, to demonstrate why older plays like this deserve revival, a director needs to make a much more incisive study of how the play works and a much more inventive manner of presentation to uncover its virtues.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Mike Nadajewski as Lord Fancourt Babberley and Gabriella Sundar Singh as Ela Delahay; Patrick Galligan as Colonel Sir Frances Chesney, Peter Fernandes as Jack Chesney, Alexis Gordon as Amy Spettigue, Marla McLean as Kitty Verdun and Andrew Lawrie as Charley Wykeham; Neil Barclay as Brassett and Mike Nadajewski as Lord Fancourt Babberley. © 2021 Lauren Garbutt.

For tickets visit www.shawfest.com.