Review: The Philanthropist

Matt Berry is among a talented comedy cast appearing in The Philanthropist at Trafalgar Studios. Here’s what Sophie made of it…

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Originally staged in 1970, Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist centres on a group of insular academics, more concerned with their own lives than with the chaos that’s reigning in the outside world. The play received acclaim at the time, becoming its writer’s first big hit, and has been revived in both the UK and the US several times since. So how does the 47 year old comedy hold up today? The answer, to be honest, is with rather mixed results.

Philip (Simon Bird, The Inbetweeners) is a philology lecturer who’s more adept with anagrams than he is with human behaviour. To a modern audience, it’s recognisable that he may be somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Philip and his fiancee Celia (Charlotte Ritchie, Fresh Meat), an undergraduate literature student, host a dinner party where the guests include lazy lecturer Don (Tom Rosenthal, Friday Night Dinner), promiscuous Araminta (Lily Cole, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) and boorish writer Braham (Matt Berry). The party, and the first act of the play, ends with Philip and Celia going to bed with people that aren’t each other, and the second act then sees them deal with the consequences of their actions.

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© Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Although the cast are all known for their work on TV (or in the case of Lily Cole, for modelling and films) rather than theatre, this doesn’t prove to be a problem at all and there is no identifiable weak link. Simon Bird puts in a particularly strong performance in the lead role, successfully delivering both the necessary comedy and emotion. Philip, the titular philanthropist, is an undoubtedly fascinating character; a well-meaning yet spineless man who is constantly misreading social cues and terrified of seeming impolite. His more cynical friends accuse him of being “cunning” and “subtly insulting” but to the audience it’s clear that he has no ulterior motives whatsoever. Bird’s Friday Night Dinner co-star Tom Rosenthal also does well as scruffy academic Don, who is “more than half in love with easeful sloth”.

The female characters, meanwhile, are afforded less depth, as is generally to be expected from a late 1960s/early 1970s script. The gender politics are what dates the play most, with topics such as sexual assault being treated rather lightly. Charlotte Ritchie and Lily Cole nevertheless do their best with what they’ve been given. As for Matt Berry, he gets less stage time than the other members of the main cast (appearing in about a quarter of the play overall) but manages to make a big impression as pompous writer Braham. Clad in a loud purple suit and spouting questionable opinions about everything from politics and wealth to sex, it’s a part not too far removed from the characters Matt is known and loved for, such as Steven Toast and Douglas Reynholm. He takes on this sort of persona with such style and to such great comic effect that it’s no wonder he was thought of when casting Braham.

The opening scene of The Philanthropist is ingenious, and provides a genuinely shocking comic moment that I’m unlikely to ever forget. So it’s a shame that the rest of the play never really lives up to these first few minutes. It trundles along quite nicely, with frequently witty dialogue and big laughs to be had from lines such as Philip’s “My trouble is I’m a man of no convictions… at least I think I am”, but the whole thing just lacks a certain spark. If you’re already fans of the cast, this comedy drama shouldn’t disappoint… unless you’re only there for Matt Berry, in which case you might feel frustrated that he isn’t in it more.

The Philanthropist is at Trafalgar Studios until July 22nd. Several websites are offering discounted tickets, including Love Theatre and Theatre People

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