Generous, by Michael Healey, won the Best New Play award in its native Canada in 2007 but has been somewhat neglected here in the UK, so the Finborough Theatre in Earl’s Court with its long tradition of supporting Canadian playwrights has given it its first full run.
Structurally, it is described as 2 four-act plays which is just a fancy way of saying there’s four stories on show here. It’s an examination of altruism, the desire to help people and the motivations behind this. The first act of each story makes up the first half and then after we return from the interval, we see the concluding parts, some of which take place 15 years later, and suddenly we see that these disparate stories actually have some connections.
Healey has an eye for strongly drawn, complex, powerful female characters, and both Jane Perry as the amoral businesswoman Julia and Karen Archer as the judge with a murky family history are brilliantly cast and have great fun toying with and deconstructing the motivations of the men in their scenes, a hungry journalist and an overenthusiastic young lover respectively. Fortunately they are both matched by strong actors: Scott Christie as the reporter who shows the effect of 15 years in the business with great skill and Richard Beanland, the highlight of the whole show for me, as the nervously post-coital legal clerk who just cannot stop talking.
The other two sections pale by comparison, the first is a madcap political scrum which felt like a poor imitation of The Thick of It and didn’t really receive a proper second act, instead being lumped in with another strand, and the other had a strong second act, but the first half, a weird wordless fight over a bucket of fried chicken felt out of place, and an odd choice to take us into the break.
As a play about the politics behind decision making, this has a lot to say, in particular around the question of is there such a thing as a selfless good deed. What this play does is not just to ask this question of people in the political arena, but also of ourselves, of ordinary people in everyday life and this is helped by no end to the reconfiguring of the already intimate space of the Finborough into a miniature thrust stage, so that the action really is happening all around you. It wants to be a black comedy as well though and this has the unfortunate effect of making it less thought-provoking than it should be.