The impulse to resurrect forgotten plays is an admirable one. There is something undeniably romantic in the notion of revisiting once-loved scripts, waking characters from their long sleep to blink once more in the footlights. The Finborough Theatre’s ‘Rediscoveries’ seasons prove repeatedly that here and there – among the bawdy comedies and crass tragedies best consigned to history – are tales well worth the retelling. And yet there is an unkind truth lurking behind these benevolent revivals: often time has been a just and sober critic, and some plays are indeed best forgotten.
Auriol Smith’s revival of St John Hankin’s The Charity That Began at Home at the Orange Tree demonstrates a sincere desire to do justice to the playwright. The plot is admirably simple, and of a kind that has served many a detective story well. Lady Denison – compelled by wealth, good nature and the advice of a Humanist minister – invites the most lonely and despised of her vast acquaintance to join her for a fortnight in her country home. The characters are largely what EM Forster would term ‘2D’, which is to say not especially sophisticated, yet compelling and serving their dramatic purpose well. There is the Anglo-Indian colonel with a moustache like a boot-brush, the vulgar widow with hips like a battleship’s hull, and the black-clad spinster peering through spectacles at an unkind world. As one would hope, misunderstandings and misgivings ensue: Lady Denison’s daughter, fatally flawed by the vice of goodness, falls for the kind of chap I feel certain Forster would have called a ‘bounder’, greatly to the consternation of her mother and aunt.
If the performances are problematic – which they are – the chief fault lies not with the actors, but with Hankin. The plotting and dialogue are equally leaden, so that scenes which in more skilled hands might have proved witty turning-points limp on and on, with nothing said in a phrase or two that might be said in thirteen. The play’s chief theme – a gentle mockery of Edwardian charitable sensibilities, questioning who benefits most from transactions of kindness – is too often lost amid lengthy, repetitive exchanges that do nothing to illuminate our understanding of character or story.
There are one or two lines of genuine wit, but occasional attempts to leaven the experience with physical comedy are not successful: it requires too sudden a shift from prolixity to slapstick. And it is almost impossible to overlook the clichés of the era, with repeated references to tiresome servants or impudent natives. Encountered in Wilde or Shaw, the terms of the times – fans, bonnets, mild profanities – seem not to be embarrassing, but all part of some glorious and timeless joke to which we are privy. Here, they exasperate rather than entertain.
As Lady Denison and her daughter Margery, Paula Stockbridge and Olivia Morgan are the embodiment of a particular kind of Edwardian lady, and engaging enough: certainly Margery ought to make palms itch, with her breathy vowels and radiant goodness, but it would be impossible to wish her ill. As the humanist preacher Hylton, Damien Matthews is kind, grave, handsomely bearded, and with dark eyes suggestive of tastes not entirely in keeping with his vocation. Oliver Gomm as the bounder Verreker attempts manfully to liven the treacle-slow dialogue with laughs and gestures that indicate a conflicted soul, but ultimately fails. There are moments of welcome (if broad) comic relief from the supporting cast, particularly in Rosemary Smith’s sour Teutonic governess, but they are all too few.
The Charity That Began At Home has not been revived so much as nursed back to health with a devoted hand: the costumes are worthy of a room at the V&A, the set mimics every ideal notion of the Edwardian drawing-room, and the direction is attentive to each phrase and gesture. But however compelled I was by the unmistakeably hand-made lace trimming Lady Denison’s blouse, I could never quite shake the feeling that this devotion was misplaced. It was rather like watching a pretty child in a summer garden tending to a starling with a broken wing: one admires the impulse to bring a shoebox and line it with soft grass, but cannot help wondering whether it would be kinder to fetch the spade.