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‘I’m not putting TV work down, but…’ – in rehearsal with Matt Berry, Simon Callow and the cast of The Philanthropist

Charlotte Ritchie, Matt Berry, Tom Rosenthal, Simon Bird and Lily Cole in The Philanthropist. Photo: Shaun Webb Charlotte Ritchie, Matt Berry, Tom Rosenthal, Simon Bird and Lily Cole in The Philanthropist. Photo: Shaun Webb

As Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist returns to the London stage in a new production starring Matt Berry, Georgia Snow meets the cast and creative team in rehearsal.

Matt Berry. Photo: Shaun Webb

Matt Berry, actor

Are you enjoying working on this project?
It’s hard work but it’s great to work with these people and with Simon [Callow]. In terms of the structure, when you do a live studio sitcom where you shoot live on Friday, rehearse form Monday up until then, it’s quite similar, but in other ways it’s a lot different. It’s a lot more detailed and the preparation beforehand is really important. I’m not putting TV work down, but there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work you have to do before the rehearsal room that you don’t necessarily have to do with TV comedy.

 

Simon Bird. Photo: Shaun Webb

Simon Bird, actor

What attracted you to this project?
When they sent the play over I read it all in one sitting, I was laughing all the way through. It felt so bizarrely relevant, and felt like it would be an exciting project to be part of. Simon Callow was a draw as well. It’s amazing to have been given the opportunity to fuck up on such a huge scale. It doesn’t feel daunting, but maybe because we haven’t done it yet, and because of the play. I’m confident audiences will enjoy it and find it funny.

 

Charlotte Ritchie, actor

Charlotte Ritchie. Photo: Shaun Webb

Have you found it challenging to prepare for this play?
Doing theatre requires some ‘rewiring’. In TV you get so used to what a character would do because there’s no other way of doing it, but now in the rehearsal room you’ve got someone saying, ‘why not do it this way?’. You have to get used to the idea that each time it could be something different. That was daunting at first but then it becomes more exciting.

Do you think the casting will open the play up to younger audiences?
There’s a really huge wave of putting people from telly in theatre to bring crowds because it sells, because people know them, and I think this is definitely a concerted effort to do that. All the shows that we’re from, a lot of them are for younger people, so I hope it does encourage people that don’t normally go to the theatre to come. If there’s a way of getting people to come and it not be an elite pastime, then I think that’s really great.

Simon Callow, director

Simon Callow. Photo: P Keightley/Lebrecht
Simon Callow. Photo: P Keightley/Lebrecht

The cast for this play are all better known for television work than theatre, was that a conscious decision?
Yes, it was in a sense, because their commitment to the play tells a lot of people that they have faith in it, that they’re excited by it, and they want people to see it, so that’s very important. From my point of view it’s always exciting when people come from another discipline and apply themselves to straight theatre. It’s been delicious to see them do it, and the cast is barely lacking in comic instincts so it’s my job to direct and encourage their natural comedy into the particular groove of the play.

Do you hope the casting will bring new audiences to the show?
Yes, that would be lovely. Everyone’s always after young people, people who are not used to going to the theatre, but equally I want to attract the people who are used to going to the theatre. It’s not saying: keep out oldsters. The beauty of the play is that it’s alive, it’s fresh and it’s funny.

Tom Rosenthal, actor

Tom Rosenthal. Photo: Shaun Webb

Were you familiar with the play before this?
No I didn’t know anything, but when I read it it blew me away and I wanted to read it again. It made me laugh a lot, which a lot of stuff I read doesn’t and so I really wanted to try and work it out. I’m used to sitcoms obviously everything is trying to make you laugh, and there are bits in this where there are sections of melancholy and you just can’t put you finger on it. That’s why it’s endlessly interesting to rehearse.

Has it been a challenge?
What’s been really fascinating is when a lot of us, we’re comedy-inclined and when we first read it as a comedy so we were going to sell the whole thing for jokes and the rehearsal process has been kind of a process of peeling that back and letting the play breathe outside the suffocating hands of sitcom actors who are trying to wring every laugh that’s there.

Lily Cole, actor

Lily Cole. Photo: Shaun Webb

How have you found the theatrical process, is it different from what you have done before?
I’ve done some theatre before, but it’s different from film and TV, where you don’t get the same luxury of a month rehearsing together. That’s quite rare. Normally when I do films I’m by myself working out what I’m doing to do with it, but here it’s a much more collaborative process.

Would you like to do more theatre?
I’ve made more space in my life to act and I told my agent that I wanted to act more, and then she sent me this.

The Philanthropist runs at Trafalgar Studios from April 3 to July 22, with press night on April 20.

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