JWR Articles: Live Event - The Charity that Began at Home: A comedy for philanthropists (Director: Christopher Newton) - May 11, 2014
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The Charity that Began at Home: A comedy for philanthropists

4.5 4.5

Unmasking the good in all of us

According to the charities division of the Canada Revenue Agency, tax credits may be issued for gifts (money, goods or in-kind) when “the gift is a voluntary transfer of property without valuable consideration to the donor."

A nominal “consideration” of no more than 5% of the gift’s documented value can be returned to the donor, allowing charities to say a small “thank you” for the benefactor’s generosity (e.g., a T-shirt if the minimum requirement is raised for all-manner of walks, runs and the like). Yet the vast majority of receipted, charitable giving is only made when philanthropists get something rather more substantive in return: a building named (perpetual legacy), seat on the board of directors (power and influence), gala receptions, et cetera.

In recent years, many instances of outright fraud arranged by various accountant-savvy brokers (e.g., donating purchased art and then receiving a tax credit based on many times the original value: “buy low, donate high”) have been detected, shut down and—in the hands of the tax-conscious, concerned citizen’s tax return—fined and disallowed. How on earth could such obvious generosity end up costing the do-gooder cash?

The meaning of “charity begins at home” in these circumstances certainly turns the well-known phrase on its head (as penned by Charles Dickens: “Charity begins at home and justice begins next door.”).

In the brilliantly conceived play The Charity That Began at Home: A comedy for philanthropists, St John Hankin boldly debunks the whole notion of aristocratic benevolence as altruism for the less fortunate. The drawing-room in a country house at Priors Ashton becomes the only set required as Lady Denison (a most welcome return to The Shaw by Fiona Reid), with the unflinching encouragement of preacher (but most certainly not vicar), Basil Hylton (another superb range of emotion—notably a subtle display of hidden away, simmering love—from Graeme Somerville) purposely invites a quintet of disagreeable house guests for a fortnight because doing so will demonstrate her very charitable nature to the spiritual leader of the Church of Humanity (so at one with the self-appointed moral authority of the religious right in present-day North America), already selfless daughter Margery (Julia Course exudes goodness from every pore only to take our hearts away as the curtain falls) and the matriarch’s decidedly uncharitable sister-in-law, Mrs Eversleigh (at the top of her caustic game is ever-dependable Laurie Paton).

For Lady Denison, being hospitable to people out of her circle, down on their luck or just plain boring is the short-term road to sainthood—just pray her guests don’t discover the real reason that they are being feted, tolerated and endured in the country estate.

In director Christopher Newton’s hands, Hankin’s long-neglected work comes to hilarious life. Newton’s sense of humour, stagecraft and considered timing come to the fore in a most unexpected place. Soames, one of many servants (stoically done up by Andrew Bunker), has been added to the household staff as yet a further example of Lady Denison’s forgive-at-any-costs nature. He’s been hired without any “character” [reference] from a previous employer only to create a furor by sowing his oats in fertile, if unmarried territory (Darcy Gerhart’s subsequent flood of years as the newly impregnated is no match for Niagara Falls). When summoned for his comeuppance, the magic begins: the silent exchange between Reid, Paton and Somerville using a host of visages and literal eye-popping exclamations is one of the funniest few moments yet seen on any Shaw stage.

Proving once again his ability to play any character under the sun, Jim Mezon’s take on General Bonsor lifts off the yuks early on as the loudmouth, dullard relates chapter and verse about every scene or situation he call recall in a bombastic tone that may well have caused structural damage to the foundation of the Court House Theatre. He is able to sustain the humour thanks in large part to his immaculate pacing and inert understanding to know just when to insert a can’t-think-of-it hesitation (both mute and guttural) that prevents his lengthy recollections from slipping into the land of once-too-many-tiresome.

Newton’s stellar ensemble and ever-imaginative production team (the hairpieces and hats add rich layers to the characters—notably Donna Belleville in fine fettle as Mrs Horrocks; even a small bit of business from newcomer Stephen Jackman-Torkoff poaching a pastry while clearing the left-over tea service between acts keeps anyone’s  interest from waning) make the play seem better than it is (Act IV sags in comparison to all that preceded).

Yet by journey’s end with layabout Hugh Verreker (Martin Happer at his best being brutally honest in stark comparison to his uppers) performing the only true charitable act of the lot, there is a brief hope that many others will follow his footsteps and let the world become a better place rather than force their “good works” on others. JWR

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