If Brazil, according to the most famous running gag in theatrical comedy history in Charley’s Aunt, is where the nuts come from, Southwark’s Menier Chocolate Factory is where the hits come from.
Now it strikes comic gold again with a production of this late Victorian farce, which may be a repertory standard but hardly gets done in London anymore. Director Ian Talbot cleverly sets its comic cogs in motion, throws some expert actors at it, and lets it run effortlessly, without either fuss or fury. There’s no attempt to impose a concept - instead, he mines it for rigorous comic detail, epitomised by sleekly elegant sets by Paul Farnsworth that conjure the Oxford undergraduate rooms and college quadrangle with period-perfect finesse.
The first act is admittedly a little bit of a slow burn as the exposition is laid out of two undergrads, Dominic Tighe’s Jack Chesney and Benjamin Askew’s Charley Wykeham, plan to invite the women they are in love with to lunch, using the imminent arrival of Charley’s wealthy aunt as a means to ensure that they would be chaperoned. Except that she’s delayed, so their friend Lord Fancourt Babberley, dragged up in the female costume he handily already has for an amateur dramatic production, is made to stand in for the aunt.
As played by Mathew Horne, with a repertory of facial reaction shots honed from his long history as stooge to James Corden in Gavin and Stacey and later, more unsuccessfully, Horne and Corden, his performance is a comic tour de farce. But though Horne’s role may be centre of the action - and has to fight off the romantic attentions of Steven Pacey’s wonderfully crisp and practical Sir Francis Chesney and Norman Pace’s Stephen Spettigue - it’s no one-man production, but a magnificently marshalled ensemble show with not a weak link in it. Jane Asher’s arrival as the real aunt, gliding around with a hilarious complicity in the deception, sets the seal on an evening of all-round comic delight.