The Charity That Began At Home – January 2012

7/10

By St. John Hankin

Directed by Auriol Smith

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 12th January 2012

This was an enjoyable drawing-room comedy set in Edwardian England, showing the effects of good intentions gone too far. Lady Denison has invited an odd assortment of ‘difficult’ people to her country mansion for a few weeks’ stay. There’s General Bonsor, who could bore for Britain; Mrs Horrocks, ditto and with social pretensions to boot; Mr Firket, an unctuous little man who keeps trying to sell things to Lady Denison – a billiard table, a car, etc. – all the while promising large discounts from the regular price; Miss Triggs, a German governess (that’s a governess who teaches German) with a pronounced forward stoop and brusque manner; and Mr Verreker, an orphan who’s estranged from his uncle and whose departure from the army is as yet unexplained. Along with these we have Mr Hylton, whose views on the need to extend charity to those we don’t like have led Lady Denison to invite these people down, and Mrs Eversleigh, Lady Denison’s sister-in-law, whose forthright, practical and somewhat judgemental views counterpoint Mr Hylton’s perfectly. Add in Margery, Lady Denison’s daughter who is even more focused on helping others than her mother, and Soames, a butler whose lack of references led to Lady Denison hiring him, and you have all the ingredients necessary for an almost Wildean comedy of manners.

We got our first explanation of Lady Denison’s unusual invitation policy when she had a conversation with her sister-in-law shortly after she arrived. Mrs Eversleigh wasn’t impressed by what she heard, and was scornful of Mr Hylton and his ideas until she found out that he was actually well off, with a house in the country, and before you know it she decided that Lady Denison was simply going along with these crazy but relatively harmless notions in order to snare Mr Hylton as a husband for Margery, a plan of which she thoroughly approved. Lady Denison protested her innocence in vain; Mrs Eversleigh was very impressed by her tactical astuteness in the marriage stakes.

If we ignore William’s attempt to give her ladyship his notice shortly before tea, the first cracks in this perfection began to appear when Lady Denison’s maid, Anson, confessed off stage to being with child, the culprit (i.e. father) being Soames. Lady Denison naturally wanted her sister in law’s help to decide what to do, but she also wanted Mr Hylton’s views as well; she was finding this constant philanthropy difficult to keep up. She also wanted Anson to stop sniffling, and eventually sent her out of the room so she could sniffle elsewhere. Soames was relatively unrepentant, though he was happy to marry Anson if he could; sadly he was already married, so no solution there. Hylton was all for giving the man another chance, while Mrs Eversleigh was adamant that he should go (Anson could go back to her mother’s, apparently), and so the final decision was up to Lady Denison, who hated making decisions. Finally, she remembered the importance of charity and Soames stayed. I forget what happened to change this, perhaps the cook planning to give her notice, but the first half ended with Lady Denison changing her mind and deciding to dismiss Soames.

The next crack was a bit larger, and rocked even Mr Hylton to his core. It started with some news from the General about Mr Verreker, which he had learned from an old friend of his, a colonel in Verreker’s old regiment. Apparently Verreker misappropriated some of the mess money, and when his botched attempt to cover it up came to light, he was forced to resign. The way the General delivered this information was priceless. Move over, Polonius, and make room for a real windbag. It was lovely the way the general kept drifting off the point into irrelevant connections – who was married to whom, what year it was, etc. Lady Denison kept bringing him back to the point and we got the information eventually, but we also had a lot of laughs along the way.

Just as this information came to light, Margery and Mr Verreker arrived back in the drawing room. They’d been out for a walk with Miss Triggs and Mrs Horrocks, but Verreker had twisted his ankle, poor dear, and so Margery helped him back to the house. I’m assuming it was clear to everyone watching that this ‘twisted ankle’ was on a par with many footballing injuries, which appear to cause great suffering at the time, but can be recovered from in a split second if need be. The real bombshell was about to be dropped; Margery couldn’t wait to tell her mother the good news – she and Hugh (Verreker) were engaged!

For once, even Mr Hylton was against the engagement. His affection for Margery, clearly unexpressed, led him to argue fiercely that Verreker was not good enough for Margery, and Mrs Eversleigh had the unusual experience of agreeing with him. Lady Denison was suddenly decisive for once, and also insisted that Margery call off the engagement at once. But Margery was adamant; after all, she’d been brought up to believe that there’s nothing more important in life than helping others, so naturally she sees marriage as a way of helping some unfortunate man to improve himself. There would be no point in her marrying a good man, as he wouldn’t need the help she can give. And she already knows all about Verreker’s army experience – he cunningly told her all about it earlier, so that she would know the worst about him. To benefit the rest of us, he goes over his story again, and when he stood up to do this, Steve reckoned Margery looked at him a bit strangely, as if she couldn’t quite understand where his limp had gone.

Verreker’s version of his story naturally put him in a better light, but even so, Lady Denison was still keen to prevent the engagement. Hylton had changed his mind, though; he was back to his charitable ways and now supported the engagement, apologising for his rudeness earlier. With his backing, Lady Denison gave grudging consent, and as peace appeared to be breaking out, Mrs Eversleigh attempted to throw a spanner in the works by revealing to Verreker the real reason for his, and the others’ invitation to the house. He was very amused by it all, but unfortunately he decided to tell the General about it, to get back at him for grassing him up. As he explained the charitable philosophy behind the visitors’ invitations, he failed to notice Mrs Horrocks and Miss Triggs coming into the room behind him, and so they also found out the cruel truth – that they were invited not because they were wanted, but because they weren’t! (Mr Firket had already left, I assume, as I hadn’t seen him in this scene at all.)

Naturally these folk all left by the next train, so there were only five people left for dinner, and this was where the set was changed (see below). Verreker talked a lot in this scene, mainly about the tiring day he’s had helping Margery with her good works. There was a short power cut during which the candles came in very handy, and we learned that the chap in charge of the new-fangled generator was another of the lame ducks, prone to drinking. He’d improved, apparently, and soon the lights came back on – very helpful.

After the ladies left the men alone, they had a frank conversation about Margery and the likely future for Verreker and her after their marriage. Verreker had begun to realise what life with Margery would be like, and actually did the most charitable act of the whole play – he asked Margery to break off their engagement, as it would be miserable for the pair of them in a very short time. His comments about unhappy marriages were very perceptive, and again some of the ideas expressed seemed very modern in approach, but we’re used to being ‘surprised’ by Victorian and earlier works. Margery was a stubborn girl, for all her sweetness, but finally she had to agree to Verreker’s request. It was a difficult thing for her to understand, because despite her earnest desire to help others she really had very little understanding of other people’s lives. With Verreker confessing that he was actually only concerned for her, as he knew that he’d be alright regardless, the play ended, and we were able to show our appreciation.

With such a large cast, I found my view was blocked more than usual at the Orange Tree, but they really couldn’t help it. I was still able to follow the various reactions, and get much of the humour, and although it was a very gentle satire on posh do-gooders, there were a lot of funny lines, well delivered. The casual cruelty of the upper classes towards their servants – telling Anson to stop sniffling, for example – was contrasted with the declared intention to make the world a happier place, and the unintended consequences of their actions made for a good deal of the humour. The performances were excellent, as usual, and I found myself thinking about the situation a lot on the trip home, with more ideas and connections coming up all the time. It’s nice to find such an apparently gentle play has so much to it.

The set for the drawing room (first three scenes) consisted of ornate furniture on all sides; sofa, chairs, side tables and a plush rug in the middle of the floor. There were Wedgwood-style panels above three of the regular entrances and a horsy picture above the main entrance. The two regular entrances on the far side had been blocked off with seats, and two doorways, complete with fancy swags and muslin drapes, stood square on to the stage. There were two clusters of wall lights on the side panels on the opposite diagonal to the main entrance. On one of the tables sat a basket with some crochet in it – nice blue wool – and I did spot a bell push on one of the posts by the main entrance.

The dining room setting for the final scene was on a similar basis, with a central table, five chairs, a sideboard, another serving table, two large candles and the remnants of the final course. The real joy was in the way they changed the set over. I’ve commented on the way the Orange Tree do this sort of thing before (Chains); today we saw the servants come on and remove the sitting room furnishings that were no longer needed and replace them with the dining room necessaries. Several of them were played by cast members who had played guests in the earlier scenes – the cook had been Mrs Horrocks, while the housekeeper had been the governess – and they each brought a touch of character to the process. I felt like applauding at the end of it, but they were quickly into the scene itself, so we didn’t.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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