Review by Caroline Hanks-Farmer
A press release is received, a fresh take on a play first written in the early 1970’s is going to have a run at one of my favourite London theatres – great! However as you will have noticed this is the first one star review for my well-known positivist site. The Philanthropist gave me a sense of overwhelming disappointment.
Written by Christopher Hampton The Philanthropist is by Hampton’s own admission a response to Molière’s The Misanthrope. After a tryout at the Royal Court Theatre, London, the piece premiered on Broadway under the direction of Robert Kidd in 1971. Described by Hampton as a “bourgeois comedy”, the piece is set in an “English University Town”. The Philanthropist is said to demonstrate Hampton’s ability “to write witty, subtle and revealing dialogue.”
The Philanthropist, depicts a 24-hour period in the life of Philip, an innocuous lecturer at Oxford University. A series of scenes where we see Philip (Simon Bird) interact with his fiancée Celia (Charlotte Ritchie) and other dinner guests. Philip and Celia, host a dinner party for six in Philip’s university rooms. The six guests invariably pair off throughout the evening. When Araminta (Lily Cole) makes a pass at Philip, as he is weak with an inability to say no, they spend the night together. The next morning, the group must deal with the consequences of the previous night’s activities.
A very effective set consisting of a 1970’s living room, which the cast use to great effect. I have to say that as the star rating leads you to believe this was actually the only redeeming feature of this play. Oh and the lighting was superb. But when the cast is strewn with TV favourites along with a very well-known model, it comes to something when you take notice of the set and lighting more than the actors on stage.
There are moments of hilarity and a number of glimmers of hope for redemption of this piece but frankly they are only fleeting moments. Matt Berry as the rather obnoxious writer Braham actually did make your skin crawl at his sexist chauvinist disparaging dialogue, which is testament to his acting skills. Other brief rays of sunshine were some of Ritchie’s conversations with Bird and Tom Rosenthal also had witty dialogue.
Simon Bird as Philip was pivotal to the show and his cellophane insipid nerdy approach was quite endearing. However I can’t help feel that this production did show us how far we have advanced as a society. Women do not now need to give the illusion that they are just trophy creatures, dressed just to lure (although the costumes were great fun and perfectly in-keeping with the 70’s). But more than that, they can not only have minds, dare I say it careers or speak out. It felt dated rather than charmingly nostalgic.
Unfortunately this was just not engaging enough. Clearly not down to the actors but rather the script or direction. There were some really quite important events described, but the monosyllabic, clipped monotone delivery meant that as an audience rather than being shocked, we really didn’t care about the characters. It was too one-dimensional, which is such a shame, it could have been really delightful, at least that’s what I’d hoped. But I left feeling totally deflated and in desperate need for finding an uplifting experience in another show or at the bottom of a bottle!
The cast taking their bows looked awkward, even embarrassed. At the end the polite clapping in the audience with some notable no-return gaps after the interval, gave more evidence that I was not alone in my thoughts. This is dated beyond belief and either needs urgent freshening up or leaving it to its past. At points I found the dialogue offensive and at others I wanted to scream for them to get some backbone and have some self-respect and that wasn’t just aimed at the men.
Such a shame, but don’t take my word for it, this is just my opinion. Go and see it but do search around for tickets as many appear pricey to say the least. Here is the official Trafalgar studios website but of course other sites are available.