Tom Kneebone is one terrific director. I watched in total admiration Friday night at the work he had done on his own musical adaptation of Brandon Thomas favourite old chestnut, Charleys Aunt playing now till June 27, 1999 at Theatre Orangeville.
I was captivated from the start by his fluid, expansive blocking, and the crisp, no nonsense clarity of his characters. Even before Lord Fancourt Babberley (Charleys aunt, played by Glen Peloso) arrived on the scene I was predisposed to like him thanks to the precise character work of Jack Chesney, (Phillip Hughes) Brassett (Anthony Leo) and Charley Wykeham (Darcy Evans). I knew I was in for a treat within the first two minutes of the production and I was not disappointed.
The play Charleys Aunt first hit the stage in 1892 and has been in constant production ever since. It is the story of Oxford University students Jack and Charley who wish to woo young lovelys Kitty (here played by Sherry Steele) and Amy (Jennifer Centrone) but cant unless there is a chaperone present . This is the '90s, remember? Disappointed when Charleys aunt fails to turn up on a visit from Brazil (where the nuts come from) they press-gang their colleague, Babberly, into playing her, thus providing the perfect chaperone. The story is pure fun.
Kneebone has seen fit to compact some of the original dialogue in favour of a spirited collection of musical hall songs. A good idea I say. Especially when some of those songs work as smoothly into the evening as God Save The Queen (the opening number), An English Country Garden, Ta-Ra-Ra-Boomderay and a choreographed charmer Everything Stops For Tea.
Kneebone admits to using songs written through to 1910, and he is not only totally justified, but on sound theatrical ground when he does so. British humourist P.G.Wodehouse, writing in his novel The Swoop, in 1909 says, "Historians, when they come to deal with the opening years of the twentieth century, will probably call this the Music-Hall Age."
The flavour of the era, if not the verbatim product of Thomas work, is faithfully re-captured.
Every artistic decision is in concert with Kneebones vision. Musical director Michael Mulrooney, choreographer Allison Grant, set designer Edward Kotanen, and costume designer Jennifer Triemstra, all fit into the spirit of the show in a way that makes it clear that this is the stuff that fun is made of. The set floats from student rooms to university gardens with as little fuss as it takes to put the kettle on. The costumes, neither lavish nor petty, fit the budget and do the job most satisfactorily.
The acting is stellar throughout. No exceptions. No stars. No small parts. Loved it. One expects the funniest and most amusing moments from Charleys aunt himself. Peloso should please even the most ardent "Aunty" fans. And, as I say, I like the way Kneebone moved the actors around the stage. When there was something to say on a crowded stage he made sure there was room for the actor to say it, moving everyone aside, if necessary, to give the character elbow room. Actors perambulated grandly just for the privilege of being able to speak and be seen. You need that in a comedy.
The addition of Queen Victoria (Ariel Grace) was a bit of a non sequitur. True, she knows where the bubbly is kept, helps cook up a terrific Sausage Song with Charleys aunt, dances on pointe and frolics nimbly through the opening of Act Two with roller blades on, but her purpose (other than as a reminder of the times) seemed to be confined to the "We are amused" line at the curtain.
I did think that if Kneebone was clever enough to get the plot across while cutting so much of it to shreds, he might have thought to cut the play down to two acts. With two intermissions the play runs till just before eleven oclock. Thats a lot to expect of an out-of-town audience. A lot to expect, I suppose, but then look at what Kneebone gives in return. A bright, fresh look at an old roast chestnut . . . For Arts Sake.
Charleys Aunt runs till June 27 at Theatre Orangeville (519) 942-3423. The rest of the summer is dark but the season re-opens in September with the return of Stan Rogers, A Matter of Heart, The Woman in Black in October and the Wingfield series in November.