Altruism to the Extreme
The laughs are many as the Shaw Festival stages The Charity that Began at Home: A Comedy for Philanthropists. An early 1900 comedy, it has retained its humour, thanks to this superior cast.
Lady Dennison and her daughter, Margery, are just too nice. When a self-styled reverend tells them that they should invite disagreeable house guests to their country home, they do it. “False hospitality is inviting people because you like them. True hospitality is inviting them because they’d like to be asked” is their new philosophy. As a result, Lady Dennison and Margery are hosting a house full of obnoxious, boring, rude and unpleasant people.
In a subplot, a footman wants to give his notice because he can’t get along with the disagreeable butler. We learn that the butler didn’t have any character references, and was fired from his last position. But the spirit of philanthropy, Lady Dennison hires him because he won’t be able to get another position. Then we learn that he is a total cad, seducing a maid, getting her pregnant, and when told he has to marry her, reveals that he is already married. That’s when Lady Dennison decides enough is enough, and actually dismisses him.
Fiona Reid (best known as the mother-in-law in A Big Fat Greek Wedding), is perfect as Lady Dennison. With impeccable comedic timing, Ms. Reid lands every laugh. In one scene, where she is trying to accuse Soames, the butler, of despicable behaviour, she is at a loss for words. In a long silence, she exchanges glances and pleading looks with everyone in the room, while the audience roars with laughter.
Julia Course is a delight as daughter Margery. Course plays Margery as too good to be true, and just when we think she’s gone too far, she shows a feisty side.
Laurie Paton gives a strong performance as Mrs. Eversleigh, Lady Dennison’s sister-in-law. She is properly horrified at this nonsense of employing undesirables and having disagreeables as house guests. Graeme Somerville is the would-be minister Basil Hylton who has convinced the two hostesses to adopt this new altruist philosophy.
All the disagreeables, or in today’s vernacular, read losers, are hilarious: Mrs. Horrocks (Donna Belleville) is a vulgar woman snoring on the sofa, Mr. Verreker (Martin Happer) is a ne’er-do-well, General Bonsor (Jim Mezon) is a terrible bore relating every detail of long stories, Mr. Firket (Neil Barclay) is a salesman continually offering deals, and Miss Triggs (Sharry Flett) is a German teacher who assumes (accurately) that no one likes her.
In all, these characters offer the makings of a good laugh, and there’s a plot twist to boot.
This play was written in 1906 and delightfully mocks some of the conventions of the era. The popular TV show, Downton Abby, written today by screenwriter Julian Fellowes (who also wrote the stage version of Mary Poppins) shows some of the same pretensions that we see in Charity, but with more drama. If you’re a Downton Abby fan, you will get a chuckle out of Charity.
The Charity that Began at Home continues in repertoire at The Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake until October 11. For tickets, visit www.shawfest.com or call 1-800-511-7429.
The Charity that Began at Home
By St John Hankin
Directed by Christopher Newton
Performed by Fiona Reid, Julia Course, Edmund Stapleton, Darcy Gerhart, Donna Belleville, Martin Happer, Jim Mezon, Neil Barclay, Andrew Bunker, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Laurie Paton, Sharry Flett, Graeme Somerville.
Court House Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake
May 10 to October 11, 2014
Reviewed by Mary Alderson