Michael Keating in Charley's Aunt

Report by Janet Hordley

A rare event occurred recently - a Blake's 7 actor was appearing in a play within driving distance of where I live (so no hotel bill to find.) Michael Keating was appearing in Charley's Aunt at the Swan Theatre in Worcester. My usual fellow theatre attendee was unfortunately wandering around America at the time (hard luck, Chris) so I had to go on my own, taking the precaution of sending Michael a card asking for an autograph after the play. So Friday 15th October saw me driving 40 miles (frequently behind a tractor) to the Swan - a small friendly theatre which was almost full to capacity.

The play was a farce, very much in the Jeeves and Bertie Wooster style of P.G. Wodehouse. Set in the 19th century in undergraduate's rooms at Oxford University, it involves two young men's attempts to find a way to entertain their ladyloves to lunch, with a view to declaring their love and proposing to them. One of them, bumbling Charley Wykeham (played superbly by Richard Dax - an ex Red Devils stunt parachutist who "fell" into acting by mistake when he crashed into the final scene of an open air production of Macbeth!) is expecting a visit from a very rich aunt that he has not previously met and on the assumption of her arrival they invite their ladies to lunch. This is the whole point of the farce - the absolute necessity of young unmarried girls being chaperoned everywhere, in a day and age of such prudity that ladies only referred to trousers as "inexpressibles" or a "pair of dittoes," and when even piano legs were covered up to preserve the decencies.

Needless to say, Charley's aunt doesn't turn up on time and rather than lose the opportunity of being alone with their ladies, our two young undergraduates persuade another student - Lord Fancourt Babberley (played by Alex Lowe) to dress up as the aunt so that the girls will stay for lunch.

It does of course get very involved when the guardian of one of the girls- Stephen Spettigue (our own Michael Keating), and also the father of one of the young men -Sir Francis Chesney unexpectantly turn up and both try and win the hand of "aunt Donna Lucia D'Alvadorez" - Stephen Spettigue because he has fallen in love with her (wrong again Vila!) and Sir Francis because he needs a rich wife!

It is a very funny production, with our heroes attempting to resolve the situation, which gets more and more complicated. There is much pursuit of "Charley's Aunt" around the gardens, by the two would-be lovers each jealously trying to be the first to propose (If you remember Brian Rix in the Whitehall Farces then you'll get the picture). The whole situation then becomes ludicrous when the real aunt turns up with a companion, and two more romantic farcical situations are revealed - the companion is the former love interest of Lord Fancourt Babberley ("Charley's aunt") and the real aunt Donna Lucia turns out to be the long lost love of Sir Francis. Confused - you will be!!!

The scenery is simple but effective - 6 tall parasols against a blue sky with various moveable partitions in front to separate rooms from gardens. The costumes are elegant and colourful, (but did ladies really wear hats in the shape of a butterfly?) and the cast perform with great enthusiasm, and at one point, when a member of the audience was overcome with loud infectious laughter, the cast began laughing too!!! Michael, somewhat unintentionally, caused extra merriment by forgetting the name of the suitor he was about to accept for his niece, and was forced to ask him his name!

After the play, I waited in the small foyer for Michael's autograph and we chatted for about 15 minutes on such topics as whether the Stretton Hills could be seen from Malvern (we decided probably not), and discussed earlier versions of the play, (no Michael, I don't remember Arthur Askey performing it - but I am immediately going out to buy some Oil of Olay anti- wrinkle cream to remove 20 years from my face!)

We also discussed the iniquitous behaviour of whoever brought their mobile phone in to the theatre - and then, for some reason, neither switched it off nor answered it when it rang intermittently for some 5 minutes. Michael did point out, however, that it can be carried off in a farce involving laughter, but he remembers a mobile going off in the West End at a very dramatic moment of a serious play that unsettled both the cast and the audience alike. He then confessed he hadn't actually received my card (so much for first class post) but he would look forward to receiving it the following day!

I left the theatre with the satisfied feeling of having enjoyed a funny production that was well performed by all the actors, and of having had the pleasure of chatting with a real gentleman.

Janet Hordley

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Last updated on 08th of December 1999.