In the past I have praised Mathew Horne’s deadpanning skills, his ability to register and convey so much without seeming to move a facial muscle. When called upon to do so, however, he has a mighty arsenal of expressions of unease, anxiety and strain. He can seem more or less simultaneously to be enduring every torment from moderate constipation to the iron maiden. This is the principal mode required of him in the role of Lord Fancourt Babberley, the central character in Brandon Thomas’s 1892 farce, who clambers into a frock to pretend to be his fellow Oxford undergrad Charley’s elderly aunt from Brazil (“where the nuts come from”). Horne’s phizog is eloquent, not just in motion but also when it comes to rest in the few more serious moments.
Ian Talbot’s revival is starrily cast. Charley’s real aunt, who inevitably turns up to complicate matters, is played with poise by Jane Asher; her new suitor by Norman Pace of comedy double act Hale and Pace, looking like a compact King George V; even the butler is the venerable Charles Kay, with an implausible Brummagem accent. The finest of the oldies’ performances, though, is from Steven Pacey as the aunt’s old flame Sir Francis Chesney. Far from being crusty, Pacey’s Sir Francis is as jovial and animated as a middle-aged Bertie Wooster, appropriately enough for an actor who played that role in the 1996 version of the Lloyd Webber/Ayckbourn/Wodehouse musical By Jeeves.
The acting is fine from both old and young. But, for a play that ends with four new engagements, there never seems to be all that much at stake. Talbot does not, for instance, establish a baseline of social propriety that requires “Fanny Babbs” to drag up in order to chaperone his friends’ beloveds. Above all, the physical business of farce is sadly lacking. There is ample scope in Thomas’s script for “playing the giddy ass” but a couple of lunges at a bag containing pilfered champagne, and a periodic galumph through the college cloisters, do not begin to add up to the ballet of increasing frenzy and absurdity that is part of the essence of the form. In summary: may contain traces of nuts – but only traces.