The Philanthropist starring Simon Bird and Charlotte Ritchie – review round-up
It’s Moliere month in the West End. While David Tennant stars in Patrick Marber’s 21st Century update of Don Juan, and Lee Mack and Griff Rhys Jones go all out for laughs in The Miser, Simon Callow directs a TV-star-studded revival of Christopher Hampton’s 1970 comedy The Philanthropist, a high-brow inversion of Moliere’s The Misanthrope.
Callow’s production, which runs at Trafalgar Studios until mid July, boasts a gluttony of small screen talent. Simon Bird (most recognisable from E4’s The Inbetweeners) takes on the central role of Oxbridge philologist Philip, alongside Charlotte Ritchie (from Channel 4’s Fresh Meat), Tom Rosenthal (from ITV2’s Plebs), Matt Berry (from Channel 4’s The IT Crowd), and model-actress Lily Cole.
It’s a young cast, much younger than that of the play’s last major London outing at the Donmar Warehouse in 2005, when Simon Russell Beale took on the central role, earning an Evening Standard best actor nomination for what The Stage described as “a wonderful study of a man whose life is built around never hurting other people.”
But can young blood breathe life into Hampton’s aging play? Do Simon Bird and his co-stars bring their on-screen success to the stage? Or, in a week when Matt Trueman lamented the paucity of one-star, hatchet-job reviews, have London’s theatre critics been eagerly sharpening their knives?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
The Philanthropist – the misanthrope and the misogynist
Hampton’s comedy famously takes Moliere’s The Misanthrope and turns it on its head. Instead of the uber-critical Alceste, we get the non-confrontational Philip, whose benign ignorance inadvertently causes a playwright’s suicide, infuriates a controversial novelist, and leads him cluelessly down the path of marital infidelity during a car-crash dinner party. The play was a hit in 1970. Does it hold up almost half a century on?
Michael Billington (the Guardian, ★★★) reckons so. “Hampton’s play, written when he was 23 and first presented in 1970, remains an astonishing work,” he writes. “Even more extraordinary is the way Hampton’s portrait of a public world gone haywire has acquired an eerily prophetic quality: not only does the notion of proscriptive violence towards selected writers precede the fatwa against Salman Rushdie but there is even a report of a lone gunman terrorising the Palace of Westminster.”
Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★) agrees, labelling Hampton’s play “an intellectually witty, emotionally acute tragi-comedy”, and so does Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★), who thinks it “remains a clever idea” in 2017.
For most, though, The Philanthropist is sorely lacking in value this time around. Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★) thinks that, in Callow’s hands, it “ends up seeming thin, dated and tedious”, while Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★) finds it to be, in this iteration, “a trifling thing, something swiftly tossed off by a smart young man, rather than a play of any substance”, in which the female characters are “like parsley garnish on a flabby gammon steak” and suicide is used as “a cheap punchline”.
“Some of the surrealist 1960s humour has aged terribly,” grimaces Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★), who’s not alone in disagreeing with Billington, opining that “an ongoing joke about a far-right terrorist gunning down a group of MPs feels entirely charmless in 2017.”
“While the first half is diverting, the second becomes eye-rolling,” writes Holly Williams (WhatsOnStage, ★★), going on to seriously question the thinking behind this revival. “I think you need good reasons to put on plays that feature ill-thought-through speeches about sexual abuse, unquestioningly stage dated double-standards, and operate as male wish-fulfilment, all at the same time,” she asserts.
It is, Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★) agrees, “a strange play to unearth now.”
The Philanthropist – sitcom stars on stage
Hampton’s comedy isn’t exactly red hot in 2017 then, but as Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★) asserts, “this is one of those plays in which the smart lines are the tip, and the cast have to bring the iceberg”. Does Callow’s line-up of bright young TV talent have the acting chops to back up Hampton’s wit then?
Unfortunately not, comes the deafening reply. There are few morsels of praise here and there – Bird is “terribly funny” according to Frances Taylor (Radio Times, ★★★), Ritchie a “revelation” according to Cavendish – but on the whole, Bird and his co-stars take a bit of a bashing.
Criticism of Bird ranges from the politely analytical – he “stumbles in the transition from sitcom punchlines to existential crisis” in “a performance notably lacking the Chekhovian heft of previous inhabitants”, according to Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★) – to the vituperatively brutal. “He’s simply not up to the job”, writes Lukowski, “pluckily droning through a role whose emotional nuances are far, far beyond him.”
Others let him down more gently. “He’s fine with the wordy-nerdy stuff,” writes Tripney, “but when the role demands a little more emotional complexity he looks mildly terrified.”
“Previous inhabitants of the role, including Alec McCowan and Simon Russell Beale, have made me think of Chekhov,” remembers Billington. “Bird, sitting with knees locked firmly together and a compulsive grin on his face, evokes memories of Mr Bean.”
Bird’s fellow cast members fare little better. Berry’s politically incorrect novelist Braham “is outdone by his loud magenta three-piece suit” according to Hitchings, while Letts finds Cole’s turn as ditsy seductress Araminta “dreadfully stilted”.
Ritchie and Rosenthal escape comparatively lightly. He is “amusing and thoroughly convincing as the perceptive but callous academic who’s made an art form out of inactivity” according to Swain, and she “radiantly suggests a woman who tries to guard herself from melancholy and emotional disappointment by recourse to high-spirited malice” according to Taylor.
The Philanthropist – a triple threat?
It’s a dated play then, underserved by a patchy cast. Does Callow’s direction manage to salvage some style, to score a few consolatory points with the critics? Erm, no.
“It feels cynical and careless. The whole thing smacks of a lack of care,” writes Tripney, adding that “a lot of the blame has to lie with him as the director, not that a lot of directing appears to have been done.”
“Callow’s direction is seriously underpowered,” agrees Veronica Lee (The Arts Desk, ★★), “and at times Libby Watson’s gorgeous set holds one’s attention rather more than it should.”
“While Callow’s production is easy on the eye — mainly thanks to Libby Watson’s elegant design — there’s little else to admire,” concurs Hitchings, concluding that “the whole venture feels misconceived”.
Swain lines up to land another blow. “There are ideas here still worth exploring”, she finishes, “like the temptations of escapist art and news blackouts, the fear of isolation, and the growing tendency to examine the form of speech rather than the substance, but in this production, neither form nor substance really convince.”
Only Billington, who “would still recommend the play to those who have never seen it”, Cavendish, for whom “the production works like a bleakly amusing charm”, and Letts, who “quite enjoyed it” have any redeeming praise.
Most, though, nod in agreement with Maxwell, who lambasts it as “more like a spirited student production than something worthy of the West End”, and with Lukowski, who nails The Philanthropist’s coffin shut as he damns it “a desperate slog of an evening”.
The Philanthropist – is it any good?
It’s really, really not. Aside from four stars in the Telegraph, and three in the Guardian, the Independent and the Mail, the critics have laid into Callow’s production with barely disguised glee, The Stage, The Times and the Evening Standard all one-starring it.
It is, by most accounts, a stinker: a criminally underpowered production of a glaringly dated play, let down by a cast floundering out of their depth. It’s a triple threat, then: unwisely revived, poorly directed, badly cast.
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