Only at the Orange Tree would there be a pre-performance cabaret as a grumpy fat man objected to the slight woman assigned to sit next to him by the harrassed usher. Such was his mood that the slight woman moved to another half-space in the unreserved theatre. Moments later the usher, a game young woman, ordered a somewhat wider and more confident woman to join Mr Grumpy. The theatre tittered its approval. St John Harkin, whose play is all about the misery that apparently kind acts (the thinner woman moving to keep the peace for example) can cause, would have been amused. The Charity That Began At Home is his play: written in 1906 and long-forgotten it has been here resurrected in a quite traditional production and whilst not a classic it is interesting and enjoyable enough to entertain even the most squashed person in Richmond.
The broad idea is that Lady Denison (Paula Stockbridge) invites to her house only people she and society don’t particularly like. Her daughter, Margery (Olivia Morgan), is a willing accomplice in this and they are both inspired in this behaviour by charismatic dissenting preacher Basil Hylton (Damien Matthews). Into their house they therefore have welcomed a terrible salesman, a terrifying German mistress, a terrific bore of a General and a terse cad in disgrace. They also employ servants of no character and spend their time visiting dull people in the village. The objecting voice to this way of life comes from the sister in law: Mrs Eversleigh (Rebecca Saire).
The action is, to match the cliches of the time, set in a drawing room for three acts and a dining room for one. There is a surprisingly high rate of good lines and whilst what twists there are can be seen emerging long before they are revealed the neatness of the plot is engaging. Some of the discussion of charity now feels outdated – for example subscribers to orphanages in exchange for votes is very much and exclusively of that time – but the overall theme that doing real good might only be achieved if its of no personal pleasure or gain for the doer is certainly as relevant now as ever.
The set is traditional and the stage direction feels so too, both in keeping with the piece. The acting seemed to require a curious exaggeration which overwhelmed certain aspects. The German mistress Miss Triggs with her clunking stoop and puckered lips combined with terse, shouting dialogue, was amusing to watch but seemed inappropriate to the play. Mr Firket’s sole appearance involved him tapping his nose so many times in complicity that he might as well have been sending a signal in morse code.
These are minor problems though with what was a very enjoyable play. The Orange Tree makes a habit of unearthing and restoring into view these long forgotten almost-treasures. In our sometimes bland and samey world it is to be applauded for doing so even if we must take care that our clapping doesn’t cause discomfort to the people squeezed in next to us.