Review by Judith Robinson
The Charity That Began At Home at the Shaw Festival is a rollicking satire on upper-class philanthropy. It makes fun of the reasons why the rich are kind to the poor and emphasizes the profound differences between the social classes in a manner only the British can do. But this is not John Clease. Although Fawlty Towers makes me roll in the aisles, St John Hankin’s play from 1906, doesn’t. Photo courtesy of David Cooper The opening scenes are a snore, and while it does wake up from there, it never quite hits the right tone. It’s not the fault of the actors. All the lines are delivered on cue and Christopher Newton’s directing, as always, is superb. There’s something not quite right about the play. It feels as if the audience is sitting through a philosophical debate at Oxford – not participating in a drama. This play has no punch – emotional or dramatic.
This is the theatre of ideas and the ideas fail to stimulate. They are neither funny nor enlightening. Hankin makes the same points Oscar Wilde made a few years previously—upper class British women are too moral and often hypocritical—and the men are only interested in pleasure and amusement. But Wilde had wit, clever plotting and stimulating and evolving characters. Not much happens in this script. The story takes place in one living room—and the whole drama seems like one unending conversation. Very little changes occur from beginning to end. The basic premise, of an Edwardian lady inviting house guests she doesn’t like out to her estate in order to be charitable, doesn’t quite work. The audience doesn’t like them either….so why bother watching?
There were a few moments that managed to rise above the tedium. Laurie Paton, as Mrs. Eversleigh, never failed to bring the stage to life, whenever she was present, (all too infrequently) with bold emotional honesty and intensity. Sherry Flett’s Miss Triggs was priggish enough to bring a smile to the face. And the young lovers – Margery Denison, played by Julia Course, and Hugh Verreker, played by Martin Happer, had a couple of scenes that roused the spirit.
Also William Schmuk’s set design was stunning—contrasting subtle beige undertones with touches of chartreuse in the curtains and furnishings, underlying the touches of passion lurking underneath the polite bantering. Louise Guinand’s creative lighting with candles, and flickering overhead electricity, effectively displayed the eccentricity of the guests.
This play disappeared from the stage from 1917 until 2002. While Hankin’s earlier plays, Return of the Prodigal (produced by the Shaw in 2001-2002) and The Cassilis Engagement (produced in 2007) richly deserved to be resurrected, this one did not.
The Charity That Began at Home is playing at the Court House Theatre until Oct. 11th.