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Charley's Auntie
The New Straits Times
"Charley's Auntie!" is given a fresh lease of life by Gardner & Wife and a riotous cast
By Manveet Kaur

Charley's Auntie!, based on Brandon Thomas' venerable farce, has probably been produced thousands of times since it first premiered in London in 1892, but even today, it remains fresh and funny. Director Richard Harding Gardner together with wife producer Chae Lian (known as Gardner & Wife) took an already-solid script, reinterpreted and rewrote it to give it a Malaysian flavour with the aid of talented actors.

The plot is simple: It's 1963 and we're at a boys' boarding school somewhere in Malaya. This is a time when young women do not associate with young men unless a chaperone is present.

Manesh Nesaratnam and Taj (of Innuendo) got off to an energetic start as the lovesick Jack and Charles, who have lost their hearts to giggly beauties Kitty and Amy. They must tell the girls of their affections before their uncle whisks them off to London. The surprise visit of Charley's aunt from Austria provides the perfect chaperoned setting for the lads to profess their love.

When the aunt's arrival is delayed, Jack and Charley persuade Jack's brother, Fuzzy (Rashid Salleh), to impersonate her, with some frantic and funny results. Besides looking like an outlandish drag queen, Fuzzy also lacks the perfect decorum Jack and Charley desire, and he spends most of his time trying to snuggle up to the girls. That is, until Tuan Megat, the girls' boorish protector, and the retired Major Taufeeq, Jack's father, arrive and proceed to fight bitterly for the affections of the imposter aunt.

Soon, Fuzzy is running himself ragged trying to simultaneously fend off the advances of elderly gentlemen and secure permission for the two young couples to marry. All is going well until the real Auntie, the Baroness von Bolinger (played a little woodenly by Louisa Chong), shows up accompanied by Fuzzy's beloved, Ela. It's all downhill from there: fast talking, marriage proposals, compromising situations and rowdy hilarity.

This is a silly play full of silly premises, but these performers make it work. Gardner's cast pulls this play off very well, with only a few minor mishaps that don't really mar the performance. Manesh is especially good as the lovesick, frantic Jack.

Subashini Jeyaretnam, Farah Ashikin and Zoë Christian as Kitty, Amy and Ela respectively, are cardboard confections of femininity and grace. Anxious for love, Kitty and Amy speak with breathless voice and walk with a contrived style while attempting to avoid their guardian.

The tetchy Tuan Megat, played with relish by Zaibo, is a feast of ferocious determination and his pursuit of Charley's fake aunt adds spice to the affair.

Manomaniam delivers a wonderful pompous masculinity as Major Taufeeq as he swaggers across the stage. He is an old warhorse, impetuous in love, announcing that "thinking it over is not the way an old soldier makes love."

Yves Yap makes an impressive debut as Ah Boon, the confused and simple-minded coffee shop attendant who becomes a scapegoat for Jack and Charley's pranks.

But the real star of the show is Rashid as the fake aunt, an over-the-top role he seems born to play. His character alternates between playing the part with great enthusiasm (especially when the pretty young ladies take him into their confidence), and being thoroughly fed up with it. He's like a gleeful wolf in Red Riding Hood's clothing, quipping at one point, "I am no ordinary woman."

The set shifts from sparse undergraduate rooms to a gazebo in the garden, covered with green vines. It is the perfect setting for the elaborate charades about to take place.

In the hands of less talented actors, or under a less skilful director than Gardner, this play could have been trite. While Oscar Wilde it is not, the play definitely has its rollicking moments.