Charley’s Aunt – 3 stars

People’s Theatre, Newcastle.

This classic 1892 farce by Brandon Thomas broke all records when it was first produced, running in London for four years (1,466 performances) and making a star of its original ‘Charley’s Aunt’, comic actor W.S. Penley. It has been revived and revisited ever since, by both amateur and professional companies around the world, proving to be a constant hit.

The People’s production, as with all of their offerings, looks great. The set design is simple but effective, minimal but functional, and gives the perfect suggestion of the settings around Oxford University.

As the play opens we discover Jack Chesney attempting to write a letter to Miss Kitty Verdun, professing his feelings of love for her. He is soon joined by his college friend Charlie Wykeham, seeking his help with the same task of writing a love letter to a Miss Amy Spettigue. Perhaps I detected a few first night nerves here, but the scene felt a little unsure of itself, devoid of any real pace or energy. This is where the characters devise their plan to enable them to spend time with their sweethearts – and thus we, the audience, learn the plot that will carry us through the three acts of the farce – but there was a lack of excitement and commitment which left one not believing, and therefore not really engaging with, the situation.

Apart from a few stand-out moments, throughout the show the pace is too slow, with some cues taking an absolute age to be picked up. This is to do with the direction as much as anything else, which is a little pedestrian. Opportunities for comic business are not given the full attention they deserve, and the piece as a whole is a little static. There is simply not enough differentiation in characterisation, too, with the actors picking up on one another’s delivery and energy levels. Attention to detail in many aspects of the piece (props, staging, costume, accents, to name a few) has also gone awry, resulting, I’m afraid, in a slightly disengaging experience.

However, I’m sure the actors will all settle into the run very quickly and tighten up the piece into something that will be well worth going to see.

(originally posted 22 January 2014)

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