Oxford undergraduate chums Jack and Charley need a chaperone if they are to woo Kitty and Amy. Charley's benefactor, Donna Lucia D'Alvadorez, is due to visit and she will fit the bill perfectly. Sadly she is delayed, but fellow student Fancourt Babberley, usefully, is an aspiring am-dram performer who just happens to be trying on his drag costume and - lightbulb moment - the substitute Charley's Aunt is born.  What could possibly go wrong?

The willing suspension of disbelief is part of the contract that we enter into every time we visit the theatre, and here we are required to be very willing indeed. It's a story based on more coincidences than you can shake a beautifully-crafted silver-topped Victorian cane at, the outcomes of which loom large on the horizon accompanied by klaxons, flashing lights and huge arrows from the heavens; it has more direct monologues to the audience (not soliloquies, for these are far too obviously direct communication) than a Sixth Form Balloon Debate; and a central conceit of a young man convincing enough in drag to be both pursued by two men thirty years his senior, and taken into the confidence of two women thirty years his adopted character's junior.

Confused? You won't be, because the sheer charm of the evening will embrace you and draw you into a happy and willing complicity with these and many other equally implausible events. The production has West End transfer written all over it. It is strongly and well cast. Strongly, in that there are names that will attract existing followers; well, in that these are not marquee engagements, but very strong horses for very particular courses. Paul Farnsworth has delivered three beautifully observed, thoroughly authentic sets in meticulous detail. His sumptuous costumes tell each character's story before they speak a word. And Ian Talbot's direction, which wrings every ounce of comedy – and pathos – out of Brandon Thomas's perfectly crafted script is subtle enough yet still, at times, makes one think this whole escapade was conceived with a venue grander (in size at least) than the charming intimacy of the Menier Chocolate Factory. 

Mathew Horne works his socks off as Lord Fancourt Babberley, and his stockings off as his alter-ego, Donna Lucia D'Alvadorez (Charley's Aunt). He follows in illustrious and diverse footsteps, but looking at his predecessors he is more Arthur Askey than Danny La Rue, more Mel Smith than John Inman. It is crucial that Babberley's masculinity shines through, and we the audience must never be allowed to forget that he has taken on this guise with great reluctance, thus making the revelation of one of the last of the great coincidences even more touching. Horne proves himself a good physical comedian in the early scenes as he attempts to steal his chum's last four bottles of champagne. He excels in this field as the play progresses and his disguise takes hold. His attempts at femininity trip over his inherent masculinity: launching himself onto a piano stool; smoking an impressive cigar flamboyantly one moment, surreptitiously the next; legs akimbo, fanning himself beneath his skirts. Indeed, never before has a fan been used to such great effect in support of a performance and been more worthy of an award in its own right. And it is Horne's furrowed, anguished expressions that take us with him rather than alienate us from his ridiculous situation, and lead to some moments of real pathos. 

But Horne is only one amongst ten very strong performances. It's the energy and commitment throughout the company that makes this 1892 farce accessible. And although it may be invidious to pick one other individual out for special mention, there is marvellous scene stealing by Steven Pacey as Francis Chesney, who approaches courtship of Charley's Aunt as a military operation, steeling himself to make the ultimate sacrifice to secure his son's future. Throw caution and 21st century cynicism to the wind and you won't be disappointed. The Menier Chocolate Factory's winning run continues.

Charley's Aunt, at Menier Chocolate FactoryDavid Balcombe reviews Charley's Aunt at the Menier Chocolate Factory.5