The Philanthropist

Christopher Hampton
Trafalgar Studios

Charlotte Ritchie and Simon Bird Credit: Manuel Harlan
Simon Bird Credit: Manuel Harlan
Matt Berry Credit: Manuel Harlan

Christopher Hampton's comedy inspired by Molière's The Misanthrope may be 46 years old but it has much to say about society, politics and the human condition in 2017.

It resides in the territory that the young Hampton shared with Tom Stoppard and Simon Gray early in their careers, surfing the waves of varsity life in search of comic truths.

The protagonist almost literally lives up to his name since Philip, played by Inbetweener Simon Bird, is not only the titular philanthropist but also a philologist not to mention witty anagrammist supreme, a trait clearly shared with the precocious playwright.

It is safe to say that the opening to this sophisticated intellectual satire is unforgettable, threatening to overwhelm what follows but setting up a tense closure some 2¼ hours later.

Even in that opening scene, viewers are likely to have discerned that the man who hosts a dinner party in his stark white, book-lined, irregularly pentangular rooms is eccentric.

However, it takes the duration to understand how Philip's mania for being agreeable can be quite so disagreeable.

This comes down to being “emotionally incompetent” manifested as a complete inability to communicate either directly or psychologically his fellow man or woman.

Were he not a don, one fears that someone with such an empathy bypass might have become one of those social outcasts raging against confrontational lamp posts or terrified passers-by.

Instead, Philip lives comfortably and has an attractive, highly intelligent fiancée Celia, played by the pick of the performers, Charlotte Ritchie. The closest competition comes from Matt Berry playing an odious, lecherous author is lack of political correctness covers any charm.

The casting for this revival leaves Simon Callow with a team who will undoubtedly sell tickets but have almost no stage experience between them.

Instead, the actors are renowned for their work, primarily in film and TV comedy.

While this can help the jokes to hit, much of the body language is not ideally suited to the stage, sometimes betraying the hard work required from those involved.

However, the situations are often very funny, involving universal bed-hopping which always seems to pair those who are most unsuited but does allow poor runtish Philip to fall foul of every disaster going. In particular, he offends both Celia and another woman who towers over him, statuesque Lily Cole playing amoral Araminta. Whether attempting to express seduction, passion or recollections of childhood abuse in this role, the actress was strangely one-dimensional on opening night.

The outside world does briefly intervene, with the darkly hilarious assassination of the Prime Minister and most of the Cabinet by a transvestite former army officer (mirrored later when literary terrorists follow up on what would later become known as a fatwa), although regrettably, Hampton does not develop this fertile theme as fully as viewers might have wished.

Unlike Travesties, which has just enjoyed a thrilling new outing at the Menier Chocolate Factory and then in the West End, this new production of The Philanthropist is a mixed blessing. It demonstrates that the play still has much to offer but does contain some signs of a young playwright still not quite hitting top gear. This impression is not helped by a variety of acting styles that possibly owe too much to contemporary TV sitcoms than plays of the early 1970s.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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