This is a comedy for philanthropists, indeed. It is also a comedy for theatre goers who were alive over a century ago. I love a good laugh as much as the next guy, but part of what provides humour in theatrical performances is the play’s relatability to audiences here and now. Times are constantly changing. Early 20th century plays must somehow keep up with the time period they are being produced in, because as times change, dated stories risk the chance of becoming less and less relevant. Watching this show is for adults, the equivalent of forcing your child to watch old VHS tapes of Shirley Temple. Moral lesson is present. Manners are impeccable. But when push comes to shove, it is not an accurate representation of the world anymore. It’s naïve and artificial and they know it. That’s the bad news about this show.
The Charity that Began at Home was written by St John Hankin and is directed by Christopher Newton for this Shaw Festival Production. It tells the story of a mother and daughter who make it their goal to only invite to their house people who need to be helped in some way – “a new form of philanthropy”. While the show is not relatable, it is quite absurd and its absurdity is the timeless aspect that makes it work, and that keeps igniting laughter amongst spectators in 2014.
The production looks and feels exactly how I picture it to have looked back in 1906. The costume and set designs by Design Director William Schmuck are flawlessly reminiscent of the time period and the costumes accurately take into account the personality traits of each character, down to the last button. The costumes do not accent the characters. They are the characters. You can look at characters such as Miss Triggs (Sharry Flett), dressed in black, with a bird-like contraption on her head, and you know the type of character you are to expect – a firm shell, but internally kooky. Very kooky.
And the acting? Shaw rarely disappoints this critic, and The Charity that Began at Home is no exception. The cast (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 and Graeme Somerville) is wildly talented and they play these characters with the enthusiasm and pizzazz that they require. General Bonsor (Jim Mezon) is as pompous as ever. Margery (Julia Course) is as naïve as ever. Lady Denison (Fiona Reid) maintains that fugacious spirit throughout, and is never quite sure what to do, always looking to others for guidance. The Denisons’ guests are a box of misfit toys. All of the actors are phenomenal at being uniquely obnoxious and completely preposterous in their own way.
Hankin is quoted in the program, saying that critics often suggested that his plays “do not end at all”. I find this to be a humorous accusation, because I feel that this play definitely has an ending, and it ends much sooner than Hankin intended it to. In fact, I feel that the play could do without the majority of the final act, which does a lot of telling and leaves little – if anything – for the audience to interpret, or leave the theatre thinking about. I felt a bit spoon fed, to be honest.
For the most part, the script is this production’s biggest flaw. I’m not convinced that this play is worth producing today. Why is it relevant? How can it be more relevant? How does it provoke, challenge or relate to the audience of 2014? If anyone wants to take me up on this, I’m all ears.
The Charity that Began at Home is playing at Shaw Festival’s Court House Theatre until October 11. For tickets and more information, visit www.shawfest.com.
photo credit: David Cooper