The Charity That Began At Home
Orange Tree Theatre Winter 2011-2012
Once again this admirable suburban theatre has done the job the National Theatre should be doing, by discovering a 'lost' gem of a play from 100 years ago.
St. John Hankin's social satire is no great masterpiece, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable little comedy with a little more thought-provoking meat to it than you might first expect, and a very welcome rediscovery.
Inspired by a charismatic preacher, Lady Denison and her daughter Margery are convinced that true charity must go to the undeserving needy, since there's no sacrifice in helping the deserving.
Their special version of this is to hire servants who have been fired by their friends and to invite as house guests people who are unwelcome elsewhere – a retired general with endless tales of India, an oily little businessman constantly trying to sell somebody something, a ne'er-do-well cashiered out of the army in disgrace, and the like.
Soon their home is overflowing with bores, boors and the socially bedraggled, and even worse, the young scoundrel has proposed to Margery and she feels it is her charitable duty to accept.
Hankin has a lot of fun with the folly of the misguided do-gooders, and then turns a bit more serious as the young man, who is not totally without a sense of honour, explains how wrong-headed living saints are and how impossible they are to live with.
Operating more on the level of a constant stream of chuckles than loud guffaws, this comedy is a nice antidote to holiday sweetness without ever being too bitter.
Paula Stockbridge and Olivia Morgan as mother and daughter skilfully walk the tightrope between looking foolish and remaining sympathetic, while Oliver Gomm keeps the young man attractive while never blinding us to the fact that he is a wastrel.
Some of the secondary characters are little more than cartoons, and director Auriol Smith has encouraged the actors to play them more broadly and externally than was really necessary, sometimes clashing with the warm reality of the others.
As always, director Smith navigates the Orange Tree's in-the-round stage smoothly, and as frequently happens here, a visible set change is choreographed so beautifully it generates spontaneous applause.
Review - The Charity That Began At Home - Orange Tree 2011
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