The Philanthropist

Christopher Hampton
Helen Mirren at the BBC
(2008)

There is something appropriate in the fact that Ronald Pickup's Philip, the eponymous comic hero of this 1975 version of what might be Christopher Hampton's most successful play, is not only a philanthropist but also a philologist or wordsmith since his life is governed more by words than people.

As many will recall from David Grindley's 2005 Donmar revival starring Simon Russell Beale in the role, this good-natured university don in a city of dreaming spires is one of life's unfortunates for all the wrong reasons.

Philip cannot say a bad thing about anybody but neither can he say no. This is an obvious recipe for a comic disaster and Hampton makes the most of it.

Directed by Stuart Burge, at one time artistic director at the Nottingham Playhouse and the Royal Court, this play is a modern drawing-room comedy of manners. It succeeds through both the situations that it dumps poor Philip in and by amusing us with the series of entertaining characters who surround him.

The Philanthropist has the most startling opening to any play that this reviewer can recall. Indeed, after viewing it first time around, his much younger self was haunted by more sleepless nights than he cares to remember. That though, is not to detract from a satirical ending that is nearly as powerful and emotive, in its own way.

Following the explosive disappearance of Colin Higgins' John to close the first scene, the rest of the drama feeds off a dinner party that Philip holds with his fiancée and erstwhile student, Celia (Miss Mirren).

This takes place in inauspicious circumstances, on the day that a cross-dressing, retired services supremo has murdered the Prime Minister and eight members of the Cabinet.

The star turn at the party is the appalling Braham, played by Charles Gray. He is a self-obsessed writer who almost turns being obnoxious into an art form, frustrating viewers with his un-PC opinions but attracting the ladies at the same time.

While Celia is smitten by Braham, Philip is hooked by Jacqueline Pearce as the voracious Araminta, a woman who drags him to bed and then ruins his prospective marriage merely for the fun of the experience.

All the while, our emotionally incompetent hero bumbles along happily enough, supported by his philosophical but determinedly indolent best friend Don, played by Likely Lad James Bolam.

The highlight of what is anyway a very funny play comes when Philip is obliged to justify his infidelity to a hilariously angry Celia in a sequence that shows Ronald Pickup and Helen Mirren on absolutely top form in parts created in 1970 by Alec McCowan and Jane Asher.

While Simon Russell Beale might just have topped the impressive Pickup with a slightly less manic performance as Philip, this is a film to be bought and treasured, although at the moment it only appears to be available as part of this six disc set. The rest aren't bad either so this might prove a worthwhile investment.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher