Jolly cheerful

Charley’s Aunt

The gang in <i>Charley’s Aunt</i>: “I’m enamored with rugby on telly, Daguerreotypes of Gena Lee and …. and twins!”

The gang in Charley’s Aunt: “I’m enamored with rugby on telly, Daguerreotypes of Gena Lee and …. and twins!”

Rated 3.0

British playwright Brandon Thomas is remembered for one thing only—his Victorian farce Charley’s Aunt. The play enjoyed a four-year run in London, starting in 1892, and was hugely popular in the three decades that followed, as the script was translated into many languages and new productions were mounted all around the world, on a literally weekly basis.

Charley’s Aunt doesn’t command much academic respect. You’ll find just one faded copy of the script (dating from the 1930s) on the shelves of the UC Davis library, and it hadn’t been checked out in over five years. That same library contains no scholarly books about the play, or biographies of its author. (Compare this to the mountains of material relating to that other hugely popular, and admittedly more refined, Victorian comedy, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.)

But Charley’s Aunt keeps on turning up—currently, as a little production at Garbeau’s Dinner Theatre. And the play is still plenty capable of generating laughs, particularly when it’s handled by a veteran like director Jack Lynn, who knows how to give it the right, light touch.

The play was already an old chestnut by the time Lynn, who’s nearly 80, first encountered it as a young man in Britain. But it contains all the elements of what eventually evolved into the genre we now know as the British sex farce—mistaken identity and misplaced amorous intent, slamming doors stage left and right, and several bottles of champagne.

There is, of course, no sex whatsoever in Charley’s Aunt. Indeed, one intended romantic encounter is broken up because the two young ladies don’t wish to risk their reputations by visiting the rooms of two college boys without the presence of a chaperone.

Indeed, Charley’s Aunt is literally the stuff from which clichés were subsequently born. It’s the sort of play in which characters go around saying things like “By George!” and “He’s a jolly cheerful little chap.”

But you know what? The situations are still funny, even if the language and the situations are antique. The gender-switching ruse involving a stand-in for a long-lost wealthy aunt from Brazil, and the chaos that follows when the genuine article turns up, can still wring laughs from a 21st-century audience.

Lynn has trimmed the text a bit, in addition to moving the setting into the early 20th century—college sweaters on the boys, long dresses for the women. And he’s working with a cast that includes some newcomers, including a quartet of teens from Roseville’s Oakmont High School. But the cast also includes Paul Fearn, who has worked professionally onstage, as well as films and TV, and Dan Clark, veteran of many community theater productions. But Lynn knows how to set up the humorous situations, and all told, there’s enough horsepower behind this effort to give this well-worn script a satisfying trot around the track. It’s a pleasant piece of late summer entertainment.