Where the Nuts Come From

Perfect pratfalls, dubious deception at Vienna’s English Theatre

Without Charley’s Aunt, the world of English comedy would surely be the poorer. First performed in 1892, a mere three years before Oscar Wilde’s classic The Importance of Being Earnest, Charley’s Aunt by Brandon Thomas seized the public imagination anew through a fusion of Victorian drawing room wit with the theatrical theme of mistaken identity that had characterized comedy since ancient times.

And when performed – as it will be until Dec. 19 at Vienna’s English Theatre – with flawless timing, fluid laugh lines delivered with deceptive spontaneity, and the zany scene progression of a creative director, Philip Dart, Charley’s Aunt is everything that gives delight.

Charley’s Aunt is about star-crossed lovers given the second chance that real life almost never offers.  Set in Oxford, the plays plot centers on the plans of university students Jack and Charles to propose to their sweethearts Kitty (Jennifer Kidd) and Amy (Olivia Wright). Propriety requires that a chaperone be on hand before the girls may visit the boys; and so their classmate Lord Fancourt Babberley (James Cawood) consents to pose as Charley’s Brazilian aunt, who has unexpectedly postponed a visit to her nephew.

Lynsey Beauchamp, Andrew Scott Butler, Mark Martin & James Cawood, in Charley’s Aunt | Photo: Reinhard Reidinger

This is a comedy that ends with the youthful couples successfully engaged, including Babberley who discovers that the real aunt’s ward is his long-lost love. The entire cast is a tight ensemble. James Morley excels in particular as Bassett, the college servant who remains placidly amused as the boys madcap schemes whirl around him. Actors deliver lines and gestures with effortless timing, causing one to wonder how hard it is to stay in role with such finesse. How many times did James Cawood practice knocking Stephen Spettigues (Michael Keating) hat off with the flamboyant flick of a fan? Solid support by the cast allows Cawood to extract maximum hilarity out of the cross-gendered role.

Transformed into the absent aunt in the twinkling of an eye, Babberley stares mesmerized and speechless as the two girls he is set to fool enter the stage. Empathizing with the absurdity of his position, the audience howls with laughter. Although Babberley later attempts to shake off his disguise, he succumbs to desperate pleas of his peers. Without a second to breathe, the gullible masquerader is frantically squeezed back into his camouflage, and the uproar onstage resumes.

The costume design (Terry Parsons) is weaved impressively into the absurdities of the script. Cawoods chest heaves under an intricate lace collar as Charleys Aunt, under which billows an enormous black skirt over suspenders and slacks. Peeking out under the brim of a tassled hat, Lord Fancourt Babberley as Charley’s aunt does indeed resemble an overstuffed armchair.

The art of provoking laughter is crafted to perfection in this production of Charley’s Aunt at Vienna’s English Theatre. There is something seriously funny about watching the men convincingly scamper through garden arches and around stage prop topiary in pursuit of love. We are delighted to be convinced that gullible characters have been truly fooled by ridiculously flimsy disguises.

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