In its day, 'Charley's Aunt' was the original West End blockbuster: Brandon Thomas's giddy farce demolished all box office records, clocking up 1,466 performances between 1892 and 1896. But as the years have passed, Thomas's gloriously contrived tale of the romantic mishaps of a trio of posh undergraduates has lost ground to his peer Oscar Wilde's more sophisticated 'The Importance of Being Earnest'. If 'Charley's Aunt' hasn't exactly gone away then neither are major London revivals as common as they once were.
Which is all to the good, really, as it's surprising what a breath of fresh air this old warhorse can be. Key to the appeal – certainly of this revival by Ian Talbot – is that while the humour is genial, we are crucially laughing at young toffs Jack, Charley and Babbs rather than with them.
A trio of affably feckless idiots who subside on self-belief, Daddy's money and lashings of champagne, our young heroes don't appear to do any studying and avowedly have no intention of ever finding work unless it be in high office. It's uncharitable good fun to imagine that Dave and Boris's student years were exactly like this; you wouldn't call 'Charley's Aunt' a satire, but it has a certain pleasing resonance at a time when the ruling classes have so thoroughly reasserted themselves.
But Thomas's play really doesn't have a mean bone in its body. The English are hardwired to love a good cross-dressing comedy, and this is the mother of them all, as Mathew Horne's Babbs is reluctantly dragooned into posing as Charley's wealthy aunt Donna Lucia in order to chaperone Charley and Jack's wooing of their sweethearts.
Horne has the star billing, and he does fantastic things in his widow's garb: the sheer hangdog misery on his face as events spiral out of control and gentleman suitors start seeking his hand is a wonder to behold. But where some productions are built around their Babbs, Talbot's is very much an ensemble affair. Benjamin Askew is superb as the nice-but-dim Charley, all blank stares and noisy snorts, and Steven Pacey pretty much carries the second act as Jack's stiff-upper-lipped old soldier father.
There's not a huge amount for the female characters to do, and a slightly plasticky-looking Jane Asher feels thrown away as the real Donna Lucia. But there are no bum notes struck in this purely enjoyable, West End-ready revival of a comedy that should never be considered a guilty pleasure.