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FringeReview UK 2017

The Philanthropist

Trafalgar Entertainment Group Simon Friend, Gavin Kalin Productions, ACT Productions

Genre: Comedy, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Trafalgar Studios 1


Low Down

Christopher Hampton’s 1970 The Philanthropist is set faithfully in its period, in a revival directed by Simon Callow. Libby Watson’s set dazzles in pentagonal white recession, white chic period furniture and bookcases. Mike Robertson’s lighting bounces back whiteness. Hampton’s precise musical cues, of Bach Mozart and Haydn pieces are faithfully replicated by Avgoustos Psillas too.


Great period comedies date less than tragedy. Fine ones, like Christopher Hampton’s 1970 The Philanthropist chuckle into relevance when set in period as here, directed by Simon Callow who goes further: casting within the original twenty-five-to-thirty-three age range Hampton stipulates but never got.


Then unnverving parallels set in too: a terror group FATAL starts killing literary giants, less Nazi list more Fatwah to us now. A fanatic stalks Westminster killing people. Hampton’s comedy of Oxford fiddling while London burns might seem queasily quaint in these days of league tables and short contracts, but it’s not vanished in Oxbridge, nor has Hampton’s premise about some people’s remoteness.


Libby Watson’s set almost makes her the eighth player with her pentagonal white recession, white chic period furniture and bookcases, too smart really for hapless philologist Philip the Philanthropist. Mike Robertson’s lighting bounces back whiteness: emotionally, there’s nowhere to hide.


Had we the word, Hampton might have called this The Philanthrope. Philip might have approved. Although the play’s famous for inverting Moliere’s Misanthrope whereby a well-meaning innocent now wreaks havoc by trying not to offend, it’s a neat trope you don’t need to know. It does lend the play a neo-classic French elegance and clarity, even by Hampton’s standards. It’s his precise musical cues, of Bach Mozart and Haydn pieces that Avgoustos Psillas faithfully replicates too. Callow’s right: if the play doesn’t speak to its own first day it won’t speak to ours.


Thus Philip’s travails begin and end with a most improbable device where he first inadvertently causes an intense student dramatist John to kill himself by accident – just because Philip won’t honestly say alongside his friend Don that John’s play is flawed. Or no good as Don later admits, noting Philip has managed to get John off the wall. The play’s splashed with such wondrous lapses of taste.


At a subsequent dinner party for six his fiancé Celia gives, Philip produces anagrams at his friends’ behest to challenge a truculent novelist (who’s deliciously offended not to be on the literary hit-list). Matt Berry’s ghastly Braham in a blueberry suit swaggers like Dante Rossetti in his later stages, wrongly detects subtle insult and leaves with the mildly unwilling Celia, as does Don with the silent Liz whom he can’t fathom; so college graduate student siren Araminta moves in on Philip.


At each crisis, Philip lapses into the cigarettes he’s given up. And he manages to insult Arabella too, the returning Celia, in fact everyone save Don whom he does insult openly in a final explosion which paradoxically shows they’re friends. Kind of. Hampton’s famous for having been indecisive in everything but writing when young, but Philip’s ‘weakness’ as Celia describes it is the purest extract. No-one has quite identified the strain before, and it’s in everyone of us. No wonder we still squirm. It’s one reason this play remains a minor classic.


That holds should you see Ronald Pickup, Helen Mirren and James Bolam in the 1975 BBC production, available on DVD, or heard a 1981 BBC radio production repeat, or have seen the 2005 Donmar production with Simon Russell Beale: you’d think at least Chekhov swapping cigars and cigs with Simon Gray (since we see so little Hampton). Here that’s less evident.


There must be actors of the right age range who can evoke this. Luckily some were cast. They’re television actors though, sometimes flatlining the layering of a live play.


Tom Rosenthal’s Don swaggers, not like Berry’s obnoxious Ed Reardon braggadocio, but with a slinky ease not unlike Lily Cole’s Araminta. Rosenthal’s believable in his avowed insincerity, abandonment of ambition, ‘half in love with easeful sloth’ exhibiting one of the seven deadly sins the cast each take a slice of, as in Moliere’s original. Though it’s Hampton’s fault this breaks down when labelling Envy or Gluttony. The only Greed’s when Philip abstractedly feeds himself on being rebuffed, part of the Asperger’s John Bird takes up in his portrayal.


Bird in the title role bounces well off his co-star in Friday Night Dinner Rosenthal, and in his long scene with Celia, mercifully cutting the FATAL terrorists’ letter and one lesser monologue. He really does illustrate ‘I haven’t even got the courage of my lack of convictions’ with devastating conviction, though with Bird there’s never a sense that’s Philip’s as lonely as he states. There’s a hapless self-communing that doesn’t needle out the abandonment he feels when Celia leaves and another frail amorous opportunity is snatched away.


Charlotte Ritchie’s Celia is believably poised, reticent in decisiveness, though the paradoxical tenderness and passion for total bastards only flickers through her. It’s an assured performance though, proving admirable foil when Bird rises to Philip’s pain.


It’s Celia’s fulfilling Don’s brief of being attracted to impossibilities that locks her to Philip, Don to a surprised seduction he too doesn’t initiate. Araminta challenges this. Like Philip she’s fundamentally lonely, sexually abused – this too casually narrated for 2017 ears – so ritually in search of sex as company. Cole slinks her body round in siren attitudes, delivers bored sexuality and angry contempt well, though like Bird she doesn’t wreak the havoc of her feelings. There should be a knot of devastation with these two, together and apart; blood, not stage blood. The one scene between Cole and Ritchie is delicious though, albeit brief.


Whereas Berry burls himself around the room, John Seaward’s cameo as wrathful John pulses like a throbbing head, and poor Lowenna Melrose as Liz merely nods once, the burden’s on the semi-conducted chemistry of Rosenthal, Bird, Ritchie and Cole. It’s a pity those sophisticates Cole and Rosenthal never enjoy a scene together.


As it is, Callow’s set a benchmark for veracity and containment that either he or someone else should further. The dampener on any revival now is that several first-time verdicts are damning the play on these performances – which improved through the run.


Philip isn’t the only near-virgin here; it’s just a pity much of the cast didn’t have the theatrical experience to start with they’ll have clocked in by the end. The play really is worth seeing, a credit to Trafalgar Studio’s courage in continually taking risks – ironically with an established drawing-room comedy.