Theatre Review: The Philanthropist, Trafalgar Studios

When the cast was announced for this West End revival of Christopher Hampton’s play set in the world of academia I thought it was right up my street. Three of my favourite sitcom actors, Matt Berry, Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal plus Charlotte Ritchie who is great in Fresh Meat and Lily Cole. Sadly, however, things don’t always live up to expectations.

The idea of the play is that it is a sort-of opposite of Moliere’s The Misanthrope. In Hampton’s script it’s a good person, not a bad person, who messes everybody’s lives up. Simon Bird plays well-meaning Philip, a philologist with a penchant for anagrams, Rosenthal is his academic friend Donald. Berry is an outspoken celebrity chum who makes his name by making controversial statements. 

After a promising opening scene which ends with a genuine jaw-dropping shock, the action revolves around these characters, plus Philip’s girlfriend Celia (Ritchie), Cole’s sexually-driven Araminta (and an overtly silent woman – Elizabeth, played by Lowenna Melrose, who only seems to be there for one joke) circulating around a stark white book-lined lounge. Chaos ensues when the floaty-dressed supercool Araminta unexpectedly decides to bed speccy Philip. Yes, I know the feeling. It’s always happening to me.

But the tone feels wrong. The actors are maybe used to being mic’d up and don’t project well enough. Not even Berry as beardy braggard Braham. My theory is that Berry was so anxious not to just “do” Toast – which may well have worked on various levels – that he has ended up doing an uncomfortably subdued version. The director is Simon Callow. Where is Clem Fandango when you need him?

There are good lines of course and some laughs, but this feels badly miscast. The always excellent Charlotte Ritchie has to carry a lot of scenes. Although Simon Bird is probably the same age as Phillip is supposed to be, he somehow seems too young and could do with more gravitas. The play seems to be set in the 1970s judging by the lack of iPhones. Back then academics could afford flats like this, but they probably can’t now, not in London anyway, so even the elegantly bookish setting jars a little.

I’ve just sneaked a peak at some First Night reviews and this has had the kind of write-ups that make Sh*t-Faced Shakespeare (zero stars from The Times) seem like the Bard at his best. It didn’t seem as bad as that at the time. But you’d have to be a very generous philanthropist to recommend it as a night out. It’s OK, but if you want wall-to-wall theatrical giggles why not see some actual Moliere up the road – Lee Mack in The Miser

Until July 22. Tickets here.

 

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