The sight of a man in a dress has arguably lost its power to provoke; in this era of decayed modesty, men and women are equally unlikely candidates for being swathed to the neck in the black lace of mourning, while the aunt as a comedic stereotype has gone the way of the tipsy butler or the dozy chaperone. Unfortunately, though, if the gentle art of female impersonation doesn’t leave you in stitches, this highly traditional comedy may leave you searching the soft mounds of petticoats for a blade of satire, however slight.
The play is, as requested of the writer Brandon Thomas by the famous fin de siécle comedian William Sydney Penley, who created the title role,“a pretty little three-act comedy with plenty of fun in it and a touch of sentiment”. In its debut months, it caused such a sensation that carriages collided as the public rushed the theatre doors, and after years of wrangling and power struggles between writer and star it battered the West End into submission with its winning mix of fraudulent identities, farcical chance meetings, orphans, and more than a touch of sentimentality. The plot is unchallenging. Two Oxford undergraduates are in need of a chaperone to supervise their professions of true love to two young ladies, and when the expected widowed aunt, Donna Lucia, lately of Brazil, fails to materialise, their amateur dramatically inclined young friend is coerced into the role. The affair is complicated by the appearance of two widowed fathers, keen to court the venerable aunt under the enticement of the millions she inherited thanks to a deathbed marriage, and the surprise appearance of the lady in question.
The performances are generally strong, if uneven in tone. Jack Chesney’s (Dominic Tighe) abuse of his elderly and long suffering servant Brassett (Charles Kay) is snottily effective enough to bring out the Marxist in me, and there are some good moments of physical clowning between him and his young friend Charley Wykeham (Benjamin Askew). Mathew Horne acquits himself well as Lord Fancourt Babberley, joyfully prancing about with trousers poking out of his widowy regalia. Jane Asher is less successful in a naturalistic performance of the real Donna Lucia that, unfortunately, could have taken a wrong train from another play entirely, while her adopted niece Ela Delahay (Charlie Clemmow) plays her part with the shining-eyed sincerity of an Ophelia, not of a slightly-written Victorian moppet.
The three younger female characters all suffer from roles that oscillate between primness and ardour with no room for personality in between, let alone any good jokes; in fact, there are startlingly few jokes in this comedy at all. Where Wilde would have inserted a one-liner or an aphorism, there’s running about and tea-related confusions; worse, where Wilde satirises his upper class characters, pointing out their pettinesses, snobberies and hypocrisies, Brandon Thomas’s play treats his characters with avuncular benevolence, hitting only the soft conservative targets of the impecuniousness of students, the greed of servants and the awkwardness of marriage proposals.
This comedy is neither riotously anarchic, or stylishly satirical; however, it does look extremely nice, and consolation for the gentle to feeble humour may be found in the stunning sets, offering full scene changes – those endangered species outside the West End – and minute attention to detail. In common with a tour of a stately home, much of the amusement of this play comes from walking in and having a look around, reviving the ghosts of Victorians past; over three frothy and substance-less acts, though, the entertainment value is, like the carpets, slightly threadbare.