THE NAPIER OPERATIC SOCIETY
Established October, 1882.
An affiliate of the National Operatic and Dramatic Association, London.
A foundation member of the N.Z. Federation of Operatic Societies.
OFFICERS OF THE SOCIETY 1963
Patron: Dr R.H. BETTINGTON. President: PETER COX Esq. Vice-President: RON STEEL Esq.
Hon. Life Members: CEDRIC WHITE, Esq., PERCY SORRELL, Esq., MILLICENT SORRELL, EDWARD C. COLLIER, Esq., HAZEL COLLIER.
COLLEEN PATTERSON, PATRICIA ROUSE, R.B. WRIGHT, N. TOLHURST, I. McLEAN, D. ELTON, REG. JOHNSON, D. ANDERSEN.
First London Performance – Thursday, 20th February, 1958, at the Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue.
THE STORY AND BACKGROUND OF THE PLAY
“Where’s Charley?” is the musical adaptation of “Charley’s Aunt,” which must surely be the most successful play ever written. Theatregoers could be forgiven for accepting such a sweeping statement with a considerable degree of scepticism and so, in an endeavour to substantiate so extravagant a claim, and because it presents a fascinating slice of theatrical history, we sketch below a brief outline of the “Aunt’s” incredible background.
The author of “Charley’s Aunt,” Brandon Thomas, tailored the play to measure for W.S. Penley, one of the top comedians of Victorian England. They had met by chance on a train and Penley, who admired Thomas’ work as a serious dramatist and who was looking for something fresh for his own comic repertoire, asked him to write ” a pretty little three-act comedy with plenty of fun in it.”
Thomas jumped at the chance, for Penley’s name on a programme was almost a guarantee of full houses. He wrote “Charley’s Aunt” in three and a half weeks, but due to Penley’s other acting commitments it was two years before she first flounced on stage. It finally opened on February 29, 1892, in the small Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds. It continued to play in the provinces for ten months, until a theatre became vacant in London. No backer could be found, however, who was interested in financing a London production, but at the last moment Thomas ran to earth a company promoter willing to guarantee the sum demanded to lease the theatre.
Finally, with second-hand sets and home-made costumes (the entire production costing no more than £100) the “Aunt” left the provinces and opened at the Royalty Theatre, Soho, on December 21, 1892. Next morning the critics pulled out their superlatives, and in the next few weeks hansom cabs and broughams were smashed in the crush of ticket hunters. The manager of the theatre next to the Royalty sought an injunction to stop the crowds blocking his doors, and Penley, sued for “carrying on the theatre in such a way as to cause a nuisance,” had to employ three policemen to handle the traffic. Within a month the play moved to the bigger Globe Theatre in the Strand, where it ran for 1466 performances.
Since that London opening the “Aunt” has never stopped playing – there has never been a single weekday when it has not been playing somewhere. At one time it was running simultaneously in forty-eight theatres in twenty-two different languages, among them Zulu, Gaelic, Afrikaans, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Icelandic and Esperanto. It has been filmed five times, broadcast, televised, made into a musical, used as the basis for foreign language textbooks.
Brandon Thomas always retained strict control over the way the play was produced, and the rules that he laid down are strictly adhered to today by his son and two daughters. The Brandon Thomases will not issue a licence for the play’s performance unless a guarantee is given that the detailed instructions set out by their father are adhered to – even to the exact details of the “Aunt’s” costume.
What is the secret of the “Aunt’s” fabulous success? A comedy of errors, the play concerns the embarrassments of a man in woman’s clothing – and there is nothing new about that. The essence of the plot is the Victorian principle that two young ladies must not lunch alone with two young gentlemen. A chaperon[chaperone] is necessary. The young men are Oxford undergraduates, and a friend of Charley’s decides to create a chaperon[chaperone] by impersonating Charley’s aunt. Not only do the girls fall for the impersonation, but two elderly suitors fall for the startled “aunt.” Hardly the material, it might be thought, for the biggest box office success in the history of the theatre. Numerous reasons for is success have been proffered by innumerable critics, but in a nutshell it is simply this – it is a very funny play.
In “Where’s Charley?” the only adaptation of the play so far permitted, some of the dialogue and a few minor characters have been eliminated in order to make room for the musical and dance numbers, and the impersonation of the aunt is done by Charley himself.
Charley and his friend, Jack Chesney, have invited two young ladies – Amy Spettigue and Kitty Verdun – to lunch during the commemoration week celebrations at Oxford University. Also expected is Charley’s aunt from Brazil, an extremely wealthy widow. When she fails to arrive. Jack persuades Charley to impersonate her as, if there is no chaperon[chaperone], it will give Lawyer Spettigue all the excuse he needs to whisk the ladies home again. Spettigue’s interest in Amy and Kitty is that he is the uncle of one and the guardian of the other, and has control of their money until they marry – an eventuality he is determined to prevent as long as possible.
Another visitor to Oxford for the celebrations is Jack’s father. Sir Francis Chesney, who brings with him the bad news that his financial resources have suffered a severe setback. Jack suggests to his father that a possible solution to the problem would be to marry Charley’s wealthy aunt – meaning, of course, the real one who is still expected. Sir Francis, however, has the misfortune to meet the bogus “aunt” first, and though somewhat repelled by her odd appearance and behaviour, nevertheless makes a brave attempt to woo her.
Hypnotised also by the aura of so much money is villain-of-the-piece, Spettigue, who stalks the “aunt” relentlessly, determined to get his hands on her “cool twenty million in cash,” Charley, beset by the unwelcome attentions of the two elderly suitors, has the additional worry of placating his bewildered Amy who cannot understand why he keeps disappearing. Then the real aunt arrives and one would expect that to be the end of the mix-up. But no! Intrigued by the fact that someone is impresonating[impersonating] her she decides not to reveal her true identity and – but we will confuse you no further. Suffice it to say that Charley becomes deeped and more hilariously bogged down in his deception before the final curtain reunites him with Amy, Jack with Kitty, and – guess who? – with the aunt.