Review: The Philanthropist at Trafalgar Studios

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Written as a response to and subversion of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, Christopher Hampton’s hit 1970 comedy takes place in an alternate England, where outside the confines of a small, unnamed university town, mayhem ensues when the Prime Minister and his cabinet have been assassinated, gunned down in Parliament and the top English writers are slowly being murdered one at a time. But none of this quite affects the characters of The Philanthropist, who instead gather around in a cosy house as they discuss sex, marriage and the meaning of life.

36158_fullFor TV fanatics, the biggest draw of Simon Callow’s new production lies in its star power, with Simon Bird of The Inbetweeners starring as Philip, the philology professor with a penchant for anagrams whose house the play’s events unfold in. Joining him onstage include fellow academic Donald (Tom Rosenthal from Friday Night Dinner), his fiancee Celia (Charlotte Ritchie from Call The Midwife), sleazy, crass bestselling author Braham (The IT Crowd’s Matt Berry) and the sultry Araminta (model/actress Lily Cole).

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Hailed as a masterful bourgeois comedy, The Philanthropist is a largely dialogue driven piece, less about its characters and plot than philosophical musings about thought and the implications of their actions. Oddly enough, it plays out like an onstage sitcom, and both Simon Bird and Matt Berry essentially reprise their characters from the sitcoms they became famous for, which makes for a strange crossover you never thought would happen. Bird’s portrayal of the socially awkward Philip is very much a callback to his role as Will on The Inbetweeners, and plays out like an older version of the character – hopeless with women and very much stuck in his own world, naive to a fault and making decisions based on flawed logic. It’s easy to feel some degree of sympathy for him, yet one can’t help but feel frustrated at him for being so utterly hapless at the same time. As for Berry, as the boisterous and crass writer Braham, despite only appearing in the first act, left a huge impression, essentially bringing the energy with his booming voice and unfaltering (over)confidence, the epitome of a prick dressed in a purple suit. This was some very innovative casting that allowed the actors to use their own recognizable onscreen characters as an easy means to access the ones playing out onstage.

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Christopher Hampton’s script plays out quickly in the first half, moving the action along quickly with a shocking suicide in the very first scene before subverting the entire incident with oddly reserved responses. The beautifully designed set is as suffocating as it is clean, with books lining the walls, including an entire shelf acting as a door to the bedroom. The whiteness of the walls betrays the darker subject matter that gets brought up during the house party’s conversation, from national anti-government plots to philandering partners, perhaps a reflection of just what shut ins these characters are, so caught up in their own affairs that the world’s bigger problems disappear into the white noise of the outside.
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As clever as the comebacks are, Hampton’s script suffers from pacing issues, with most of the scenes in the second act dragging on longer than necessary, particularly due to its much more serious tone compared to the first act and slowing down of the dialogue. There’s plenty of interesting theories, observations and reflections to be mined, but bogged down by its own cleverness and language, it’s all too easy to trip over the countless ideas that are brought up in the course of the play and absorb all of them in a single viewing. At the same time though, Hampton reveals enough of his characters’ thoughts to thoroughly understand their intentions and personalities, allowing for their various endings to hit some surprisingly emotional notes, easily transforming what initially seems like a black comedy into a tragedy.
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The Philanthropist takes a while to find its mark, but when it finally does, it hits with some solid truths. Along the way, its anarchic themes are strangely relevant in these uncertain times, echoing a kind of nihilism prevalent in our current chaotic political situation, but never advocating it, instead pushing for quite the opposite, which is to keep calm and carry on despite all the instability. Armed with quintessentially British quips and a thoroughly wicked sense of humour, The Philanthropist feels modern and current even in 2017, and part of the joy of watching it has to do with its familiar yet foreign cast of recognizable actors. Come watch this for a depressingly realistic, millennial reminder of life, but prepare yourself for some long exchanges and to prick up your ears to catch all of the subtle nuances littered throughout.

The Philanthropist plays at Trafalgar Studios till 22 July. Tickets available here

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