Brandon Thomas’ legendary farce has enjoyed an illustrious history since its 1892 premiere, and a host of stars have donned drag as Lord Fancourt Babberley, who masquerades as a chaperone for his university friends Charley and Jack. Ian Talbot’s new production at the Menier Chocolate Factory uses the piece’s period and nostalgic appeal to delight the audience. It’s a “clinking good idea” that results in an evening both gentle and civilised.
In the title role, Mathew Horne gives an accomplished performance marked by surprising restraint. He never flags, but in trying to show the lovesick emotions underneath the antimacassar he’s using as a shawl, the comedy fails to fly. It doesn’t help that the show has two intervals. We get some fantastic sets from designer Paul Farnsworth, but taking time out for big breathers during a farce isn’t a good idea. There’s plenty of fun when Charley’s ‘aunt’ is chased around the college quad or a piano, but the real strength of the night is that the whole ensemble has its share in the spotlight, making Talbot’s production pleasingly balanced.
Dominic Tighe and Benjamin Askew both excel as Babberley’s fellow students Jack and Charley, and all the love interests (Leah Whitaker, Ellie Beaven and Charlie Clemmow) do well with frankly clunky roles, getting the laughs out of all those stiff upper lips. Steven Pacey works marvels as Jack’s father with some great comic touches and Jane Asher, who plays Charley’s real aunt, will leave everyone with the words “she’s wasted in the part” on their lips. Their performances all show a consummate skill that’s fitting for Talbot’s respectful revival.
Until 10 November 2012
Photo by Catherine Ashmore
Written 2 October 2012 for The London Magazine