Theatre Review: ‘The Philanthropist’, Trafalgar Studios

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything

Director: Simon Callow

Starring: Simon Bird, Tom Rosenthal, Matt Berry, Charlotte Ritchie, Lily Cole

Grade: D

I suppose I can vaguely understand the rationale for staging The Philanthropist. Its setting sounds, in some ways, like our present political moment. It, too, features an attack on the Houses of Parliament. When it premiered in 1970 the country was then, as now, looking forward to a general election in June. So…you know….there you go, I guess.

And that, I suppose, is going to have to do. Because everything else about this production is baffling. Simon Callow (plummy, perennial-Malvolio-in-waiting Simon Callow) is directing a gaggle of famous-faces-off-other-media, in….simultaneously the most self-consciously theatrical, and the most stunning untheatrical, play I’ve ever seen. Actors are supposed to be good at directing actors, aren’t they? So why choose a play that allows its actors so little room to manoeuvre?

The Philanthropist is an inversion of Moliere’s The Misanthrope. It centres around a compulsive people-pleaser in Philip (Simon Bird, channelling a temped-down version of his Inbetweeners persona), a university lecturer in philology, who in his haste to agree and placate displays a unique talent for alienating everyone. It also features his exasperated fiancee (Charlotte Ritchie), his snarky Eng-Lit don friend (Tom Rosenthal, enjoyable), a sexually rapacious broken bird (Lily Cole, whose accent wanders from Sloane Ranger to Kiwi in the same speech, nay the same word) and a self-consciously monstrous novelist (Matt Berry, presumably heavily sedated).

I shouldn’t pick on the actors. I mean, I have, but I shouldn’t. This isn’t a play about performances, honestly. It’s about a clever young writer exuberantly showing off his bookshelf. During the play’s seemingly-interminable (but in actuality a little under two hour) running time, I stayed awake by playing Spot-The-Reference. Moliere, of course. Pirandello was name-checked in the play’s opening moments when discussing characters taking on lives outside the fictional construct, and leaning heavily – but heavily – on the fourth wall. Stoppard in its leisured bourgeois intellectual setting and assumptions. Stoppard, too, in the creeping certainty that the work is fully forty per cent less intelligent than it thinks it is. Chekhov – or at least Chekhov’s gun. Hampton settled down eventually, but I confess I am impressed at the indulgence – or clairvoyance – of a public that allowed him to continue in his chosen career after this smug, bloated, derivative, torpid piece of onanism.

So, as I say, I can’t really blame the actors for Callow’s failure to find a throughline in Young Christopher Hampton’s Bibliography. I can’t blame Callow, either. I can, however, give everyone concerned the fish-eye for continuing to tolerate this pretentious empty-calorie drivel.

I assume there is good theatre to be found about late-twentieth-century English bourgeois liberal intellectual ennui. But giants of the firmament including Bennett, Stoppard and now Hampton have serially disappointed me every time I’ve tried. Hit me up with any suggestions.

Failing which, The Philanthropist runs – or should I say lies there on the plate – at The Trafalgar, Studio One until July 22. Stay away to avoid disappointment.

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