Charley’s Auntie Rides Again

Charley’s Auntie! is being restaged after last year’s raging success. Have Gardner & Wife found a new recipe for filling theatre houses?

“We appeal to people who never went to the theatre before,” says theatre director Richard Gardner. This alone says a lot about both Gardner & Wife’s success, and their mixed reviews. Beyond that, this new company is creating a new brand of theatre in Malaysia.

Richard Gardner’s first play in Malaysia in October last year was a raging success and played to full houses at the Actors Studio Box. So much so that he and his partner in life as well as in business, Chae Lian, decided to set up their own company, Gardner & Wife, and make a living out of theatre, a rather unusual and bold undertaking in Malaysia.

Both Chae Lian and Gardner have a strong background in theatre. Chae Lian studied theatre and appeared in plays by The Actors Studio and The Instant Café Theatre while Gardner studied theatre in the United Kingdom and was a professional comedian there and other places before he went to Los Angeles to do more script-writing.

What Gardner & Wife are delivering to the Malaysian public is easy, light, silly comedy. Nothing more. And it seems to strike a chord with a rather large audience: not only does Gardner & Wife know how to make people come – you might have seen producer Chae Lian handing out leaflets at the Bangsar Shopping Complex –, but most of the audience seems satisfied it got value for money, judging by the laughs in the hall. Their last production, Nunsense, was a sell-out.

However, among regular theatre goers and theatre practitioners rise scornful protests. Gardner & Wife’s productions are cheap, too commercial, and too easy to be really funny, they say.

To which Gardner responds: “The British have a long tradition of enjoying silliness. That’s not the same as being stupid. Look at Monty Python, The Goon Show“. He sees his theatre as an attempt to replicate the easy English comedy one finds on the West End of London.

He also sees this light comedy as a good way to attract people to theatre, people who might be put off by more serious, high-brow material. “How can you educate people to theatre if they are not interested in theatre first?” he says.

In his mind there is a place for commercial productions, if only because it gets audiences familiar with a genre, that might lead them to explore further. He looks at cinema in Malaysia: there are now screenings of indie international films whereas there were little more than Hollywood movies a few years back.

Therein lies Gardner & Wife’s biggest merit: attracting audiences who would otherwise not go to theatre, and making sure they have a good time, enough to want to come back, maybe.

Gardner and Chae Lian say that they themselves are not all in Malaysian theatre, but they are filling a yet untapped niche, which they mean to keep exploring. Sometimes with success, but sometimes without. Out of the three plays they have produced so far, one was a flop – “Relatively Speaking was too close to sitcoms,” says Gardner, audiences could get what we offered for free on TV””

The first play Charley’s Aunty was such a success that they are running it again this year (it starts on October 26), with a few changes in the script, and a total change in the cast. There again, isn’t it a bit easy to show a successful play just one year later? “Reviving things that are good is a good thing to do,” says Gardner, and [Brian Thomas’] Charley’s Aunt has been revived continuously since its first stage over one hundred years ago.” He goes on, “Art has been shown on the West End of London for four years with a different cast every three months.”

Gardner & Wife have disturbed the status quo of Malaysian theatre in more ways than one: they run their shows for three weeks to make sure they fully cash into their success. They were the first theatre company to offer online ticketing. Also this year they play at the Actors Studio Bangsar, which means they have 6,000 seats to sell instead of 2,000 last year. But this in turns enables them to pay actors and back stage people “real” wages, which in turn helps them be more professional. And they know how to promote their plays all over town. While theatre in Kuala Lumpur tends to be for people in the know, Gardner & Wife are very democratic in getting their shows advertised all over – shopping complexes, schools…

Unless the grumblers are snobs, the next challenge for Gardner & Wife may be to appeal also to a more sophisticated audience of theatre-goers – which their current public will hopefully become soon! – The references Gardner gave – Monty Python, The Goon Show, West End productions – can be clever, slick, well acted, and appeal to regular or first-time theatre goers. So it is possible!

Charley’s Auntie! is on at The Actors Studio Bangsar from October 26 – November 17.

First Published: 24.10.2001 on Kakiseni

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