December 21, 2011 5:53 pm

The Charity that Began at Home, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

This fluid production of St John Hankin’s play about unlikeable house-guests provokes genteel chuckles rather than roars of laughter

It is unsurprising that St John Hankin and George Bernard Shaw admired each other’s plays. Hankin’s 1906 drama, his third to be revived at the Orange Tree, adopts the very Shavian strategy of turning social conventions and cosy nostrums on their heads two or three times and exposing well-intentioned middle-class people to a character who seems amoral but turns out to have, if not a higher code, then at least a stronger one.

Lady Denison and her daughter Margery, under the influence of a new church, have adopted a novel approach to hospitality, and rather than inviting as house-guests folk whom they like, opt for those whom no-one else does: a vulgar social climber; an old soldier who tells endless, tedious anecdotes; a daunting governess; and a feckless young gentleman. It is the last of these who poses the real challenge to the Denisons’ assumptions. The crux comes with Margery’s announcement of her engagement to young scapegrace Hugh Verreker – with a view to reforming him, of course. The third and fourth acts consist of mother, daughter and son-in-law-to-be questioning and re-assessing their own and each other’s attitudes.

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Very Shavian, then, in scheme at least. Alas, Hankin cannot match the Irish dramatist’s mordancy nor the acuity of his arguments. What we hear for the most part are unremarkable positions and remarks even from those on the supposed extremes, and humour that provokes genteel chuckles rather than louder and uneasier laughter. Damien Matthews as Hugh, in particular, has a hard time navigating through this: he takes a hyper-Shavian tack unsupported by his lines, with the result that he often looks or sounds malicious or even Machiavellian when he should probably be merely languid. Only when the character grows animated does Matthews properly shine. Olivia Morgan is a wide-eyed angel as Margery, Shuna Snow a fearsome secretary bird of a governess and Philip York a rumbling buffer of a general. Auriol Smith’s production is fluent but timid about tackling the players’ alternate deficits and excesses of intensity.

3 stars

www.orangetreehtheatre.co.uk

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