The Orange Tree Theatre is very good at Victorian and Edwardian plays with an ‘upstairs-downstairs’ theme, and Auriol Smith’s most agreeable revival of St John Hankin’s 1905 comedy The Charity That Began at Home feels particularly well-timed in the midst of Downton Abbey-mania (the most unsubtle costume drama ever penned, but utterly addictive). Hankin’s play has all the elegant gowns, elaborate coiffures and waspish put-downs, along with the added bonus of Edwardian authenticity in an examination of upper class Lady Bountiful complexes that wears its philosophical angle lightly.
Under the guidance of Mr Hylton (Damien Matthews), a sort of lifestyle guru and the founder of the ‘Church of Humanity’, advocating the idea that true hospitality is inviting people who are unlikely to be invited elsewhere, Lady Denison’s (Paula Stockbridge) house is filled with various misfits whom she and her daughter Margery (Olivia Morgan) have collected: the nose-tapping failed stockbroker Mr Firket (Michael Kirk); the stout and vulgar Mrs Horrocks (Rosemary Smith); General Bonsor (Philip York), an infernal bore of a retired army officer; the stooped and passive-aggressive German-teaching governess Miss Triggs (a splendid comic cameo by Shuna Snow); and Hugh Vereker (a highly impressive Oliver Gomm), a young layabout estranged from his wealthy uncle. While the guests bicker amongst themselves, all is not well below stairs as a long-serving footman attempts to hand in his notice, unhappy working under the new butler, Soames, who has also got a maid in the family way.
Much of Hankin’s sparky dialogue is eminently quotable and it also captures the unthinking tactlessness (the pregnant maid “Fortunately hasn’t got a father”) of the upper classes. The excellent Rebecca Saire fulfils the Dowager Countess role (though much younger) as Lady Denison’s sceptical sister-in-law, Emily, with her droll wit (“People with absurd theories usually are bachelors”) and succinct way of summing up the absurdity of Lady Denison’s condescension dressed up as charity, and is proved right in her doubt about employing servants because no one else will hire them – but as Mr Hylton argues, not continuing to give them further chances leads them into crime.
As the misguidedly well-meaning Lady Denison, Paula Stockbridge has a childlike ineffectuality in the way in which she leaves all the decisions to her daughter. While her mother can be persuaded to see the absurdity of her do-gooding, the angelic Marjory, who lacks any “redeeming vices” is unquestioningly absorbed in a life of writing letters on behalf of orphans and visiting gouty old ladies. Her idea of marrying the cynical Mr Vereker with the hope of changing him leads to an interesting dialogue about what makes a successful marriage, with a surprising pro-divorce stance and the piercingly true line, “Men don’t reform – they repent.”
As is the case with a number of plays from this era, the script could be cut down by a good fifteen minutes as Hankin is a little too indulgent of the General’s reminiscences, it takes a while to get going and the obligatorily earnest final scene gets a tad repetitive (then again, the Russian Revolution was done and dusted in Downton Abbey in a sentence), but these are fairly minor gripes. The Orange Tree deserves a very happy fortieth birthday and here’s hoping they never run out of amusing and intelligent neglected plays to make new again
The Charity That Began At Home is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 4 January 2012. For more information and to buy tickets, see the Orange Tree website.