Review of The Philanthropist by Christopher Hampton at Trafalgar Studios
Moliere is having something of a moment in the West End of late with this the third 'revisal' to open in as many months. Whilst Don Juan of Soho and The Miser update their original French sources, Christopher Hampton's The Philanthropist serves as more of a response to his most famous work The Misanthrope, updating the satire on French aristocracy to a university town to provide, as the writer describes, a “bourgeois comedy”.
It's perhaps an odd choice to revive this dusty character study as an ensemble star vehicle for a number of famous faces and names from television clearly designed to draw in a new crowd, all under the careful watch of director Simon Callow. On paper, it should work but since the play's warm reception in 1971 and a Donmar revival in 2005, something about it hasn't aged well. The throwaway context of a fatal Westminster shooting which takes out the Prime Minister and many on the front bench is insensitively handled and in this new context, a stone's throw away from Downing Street is further proof that the whole effort feels sadly needless.
Hampton's text is never quite witty enough to merit its frequent descent into over intellectualised waffle. As the mix of dons, grad students and artists wax lyrical in this undisclosed university town amid the 70s context of sexual liberation and social change the plot rarely progresses. The spin of this particular production backfires as everyone reads as far too young for the mouthpieces they're forced to inhibit. Rather than freshen and open up the text it instead feels like a school play where you have to immediately forgive casting against type and just go along for the ride, but rather than thrill it softly fumbles along apologetically.
At times it's self conscious and almost meta as Hampton bookends the bulk of the action with two Pirandello-like scenes that alter the overall tone and suggest that a potentially weightier play could be made from his conceit. The bathetic final scene feels resolutely undeserved and set against the context of political upheaval, somewhat tasteless. Darker themes such as rape, sexual abuse and suicide are throwaway and land awkwardly, dropped into conversations as non sequiturs, attempting to justify a set of horrible personalities each as repulsive and unlikely as the next.
Simon Callow may be an accomplished actor but he fails to maintain pace or guide his actors to make the black comedy land. Jokes fall with a thud and the audience titter awkwardly and it takes a long time to realise that very little is going to happen. Characters seem to just exist rather than develop and this could be fine, if however the play gave us any reason to connect with them. It's dutifully performed and somewhat mechanical, you can sometimes see the blocking and the overall energy is never quite grasped by the ensemble who bring an uneven bag of stage credentials.
Simon Bird is tasked with shouldering much of the work as the apologetic don Philip and whilst he's pleasant to watch and has a natural likeability on stage he rarely deviates far from his usual shtick. Falling back on the socially awkward tropes associated with his most famous character Will from 'The Inbetweeners' he appears too anachronistic and detached from the world of the play. Lily Cole is woeful, ethereally gliding across the stage and only ever coming to life when accidentally knocking the box of cornflakes off the table and forced to cover it up without corpsing. With a wandering accent that resembles Eliza Doolittle with a mouthful of marbles she mishandles the text and her elongated scene with Bird falls flat. There's plenty of posturing and swaggering from Matt Berry in the intensely dislikable role of an oversexed writer but his energy is again mismatched with those around him and you never believe this set of personalities would ever be in a room together, let alone breaking bread. Tom Rosenthal is the most natural on stage and makes the most of his oddly aligned character, yet he and a luminous Charlotte Ritchie are constantly swimming up stream.
The dated sexual politics, bleak humour and uneven performances make for an underpowered revival of play that in 2017 doesn't offer a great deal to new audiences. It's never quite absurd enough to justify its existence and outstays its welcome.
What the Press Said...
"I would still recommend the play to those who have never seen it: The Philanthropist offers a memorable portrait not only of academic insularity but also of the destructive nature of reflex niceness."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The production works like a bleakly amusing charm and, for those who've not seen the play before, it's a treat"
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"After a promising first few minutes it turns out to be a woeful dud, in which the flashes of wit in Christopher Hampton's '70s play are routinely missed."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Television stars need to go back to basics."
Dominic Maxwell for The Times