The role of the eponymous cross-dressing “aunt” in Charley’s Aunt was written in 1890 for William Sydney Penley, a man so naturally funny that he had to give up a career in light opera because he lacked the necessary gravitas, and it has since been taken on by Noël Coward, John Gielgud and Arthur Askey. Now Gavin and Stacey star Mathew Horne is tackling the role.
Horne’s appearance as Lord Fancourt Babberly, before he throws on the dress and antimacassar of the faux aunt, is startling. He runs to stage front, rushes through lines with frantic energy and a pantomime gurn that pulls attention away from the chummy interplay between Dominic Tighe’s born-to-rule interpretation of Jack Chesney and Benjamin Askew’s charmingly foppish and naive Charley. Much of the opening scene revolves around the hapless pair, who, though penniless, are determined to live well and marry the girls of their dreams.
The hyper-realistic set, designed by Paul Farnsworth complete with twisting spires, grand arches, old boys photos and a cabinet filled with champagne, makes it easy to imagine you are with them in the opulent dwellings at Oxford’s Christ Church, or King’s College, Cambridge.
Once fully frocked, Horne’s gurning turns to feverish anxiousness at being found out. He has some wonderful slapstick moments. Not knowing what to do with a gift of flowers, he shoves them down the top of his dress, where the blooms obscure his face. Then realising his error, he gently parts the flowers down the middle and peers coquettishly through the foliage.
Later, trying to foist off the unwanted affections of Stephen Spettigue, played with superb timing and reserve by a mercurial Norman Pace (of comedy duo Hale and Pace), Horne runs behind a piano and cries, with a rolling of his eyes “I’m no ordinary woman!” and plonks himself down on the piano keys with a discordant clang.
The contrast between Jane Asher’s poised and charming aunt and Horne’s gregarious, flustered ersatz version is a genius bit of casting. Where he flaps towards the audience, her serene confidence draws the eye. In one lovely moment the pair walk side-by-side, with the fake aunt trying to imitate the genuine article, as they turn their backs to the crowd, kicking out their skirts, it’s Asher who holds our gaze.