The Charity That Began At Home, Orange Tree, Richmond


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The Independent Culture

The remarkable Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond will enter its fifth decade on January 1 2012. One of its many virtues is a knack for unearthing fascinating rarities, especially from the Edwardian era.

It has previously championed the largely forgotten St John Hankin with persuasive revivals of The Return of the Prodigal and The Cassilis Engagement. Now in a feat of witty programming, it marks the Christmas period – a time of proverbially severe strain on the notion and practice of hospitality – with a sharp Hankin comedy that questions the philosophy behind our choice of whom we invite into our homes.

Under the influence of a dodgy, crusading philanthropist, Lady Denison adopts the view that false hospitality is inviting people because you like them; true hospitality is inviting people who would like to be asked. It's a doctrine predicated on the idea of need being paramount and is a distorted pre-echo of the concept of parental rights in Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle. Her home thus becomes a mecca for society's more disagreeable waifs and strays who include a comic Indian Army bore (spot-on Philip York), an alarming teacher of German and a dubious stockbroker.

The dialogue can be prolix and the debate into who benefits most in transactions of supposed kindness can get buried under its wordiness. But Auriol Smith's beautifully cast production lends the proceedings snap and vibrancy. Oliver Gomm brings just the right note of seductive sleaziness to the role of Verreker, the bounder who works his way into the affections of the daughter of the household (a winning Olivia Morgan) and causes even her idealistic mother (Paula Stockbridge) to wonder whether there are limits to altruism. Rebecca Saire is perfect as the latter's pursed, severely reproving sister, while the handsome, bearded Damien Matthews gives hints of a suspect hinterland to the somewhat under-written role of Hylton, the plain clothes preacher whose principles propel the action.

This is the second nutririous rarity that Auriol Smith has directed this year at the Orange Tree. Her production back in March of Mary Broome gave a wonderfully entertaining new lease of life to a neglected 1911 comedy by Allan Monkhouse. As well as bringing to our notice plays that deserve reconsideration, the Orange Tree also has a gift for highlighting young acting talent. In Mary Broome, it was Jack Farthing, here it is recent RADA graduate Olivia Morgan of whom, I fancy, we will be hearing much more.

To 4 February 2012