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The Philanthropist review at Trafalgar Studios, London – ‘cynical and careless’

Matt Berry and Lily Cole in The Philanthropist at Trafalgar Studios, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Matt Berry and Lily Cole in The Philanthropist at Trafalgar Studios, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

While there’s a measure of wit to Christopher Hampton’s 1969 play The Philanthropist, Simon Callow’s production conspires to hide it.

This is one of the most misguided revivals you’re likely to see on stage this year, seemingly intent on sabotaging itself at every step. The dialogue is thrown around like a series of misshapen paper aeroplanes and hardly any of the lines land successfully. Most of the cast members look visibly uncomfortable. Simon Bird, in his second stage role, is out of his depth as Philip, the shy, amiable philologist with a penchant for anagrams. He’s fine with the wordy-nerdy stuff but when the role demands a little more emotional complexity he looks mildly terrified.

Matt Berry’s brief turn as a randy writer with an outsize ego is even more disappointing. His delivery is erratic, his sonorous Steven Toast tones curiously underused, and he’s frequently in danger of being outperformed by his fuchsia suit.

Inadequately deployed as they are, the men at least have material to work with. The female characters in The Philanthropist are like parsley garnish on a flabby gammon steak. The play’s gender politics have not dated well, to put it mildly. They should be bottled and put in the Hunterian Museum, next to all the other tumours and polyps.

Charlotte Ritchie, as Philip’s relatively grounded fiancee Celia, delivers the most solid performance, which is to say she’s the only cast member who displays more than one emotion. Ritchie is the best thing in it by a long way, but even she can’t save the scene between Celia and Philip. Lily Cole, saddled with a bizarre accent, can undoubtedly rock a maxi dress, but her character is a scrap, an absence, all legs and air and hair. She’s basically just a mechanism for getting Philip into bed.

It’s prettily designed, I’ll give it that. Libby Watson’s white-walled, book-lined set is attractive, but even the lighting cues feel ham-fisted.

Despite a sprinkling of wit, Hampton’s Misanthrope inversion – written when he was 24 – is made to feel, in Callow’s hands, like a trifling thing, something swiftly tossed off by a smart young man, rather than a play of any substance. The women are there for decoration and it uses suicide as a cheap punchline.

Callow’s revival intensifies this. It feels cynical and careless. The whole thing smacks of a lack of care. A lot of the blame has to lie with him as the director, not that a lot of directing appears to have been done. The actors struggle to connect with one another in any meaningful way, and, despite their backgrounds in television comedy, they drain the play of its absurdist energy as well as its intelligence and poignancy.

Verdict
Miscast and misguided revival of Christopher Hampton’s riff on Moliere
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