Friday, 28 April 2017

The Philanthropist

Despite its past acclaim, 47 years on, this new production seems in need of resuscitation

Written by Georgina Brown

If you didn’t know that, once upon a time back in 1970, the Philanthropist won awards for being the best comedy, you would never guess it from simon Callow’s flat, feebly performed revival.

the precociously talented Christopher hampton (best known for his superb version of Les Liaisons dangereuses) was in his early twenties when he had the rather brilliant idea of writing a witty riposte to molière’s the misanthrope. Instead of a fellow who was loathed for being vile, he gives us Philip, a don of philology who loves words and adoresGeorgina-Brown-colour-176 anagrams and explains that he can’t teach english Literature because he finds it impossible to criticise or find fault. A quality that extends to his relationships. even so, he manages to upset and alienate all his so-called friends.

Nothing rings true in Callow’s staging. It is supposed to be set in an english university in the 1970s (hampton went to oxford) but the design of a white sofa, white armchair, white walls, with all the old furniture painted white, as are the floorboards, looks very now. even the frocks worn by the gorgeously groovy undergraduettes look like a tasteful contemporary take on the frills and prints of those days.

Perhaps all the white paint is supposed to suggest the moral vacuum of the place. the room certainly seems immured from the rest of the world. None of the guests at Philip’s dinner party cares a jot about the assassination of the Prime minister and most of the Cabinet or a plan to bump off the top literary novelists. But it is the fatally underpowered acting that kills the play almost stone dead. Invariably the lines are delivered with so little expression that even good ones such as Philip’s ‘I’m a man of no convictions. At least I think I am,’ barely register.

Willowy Lily Cole, model turned actress, wafts around the stage as would-be vampy Araminta, hair to her waist, legs to her armpits, speaking with the most bizarre Celia Johnson accent about ‘gitting drissed’. the programme tells me that matt Berry – who plays the novelist who has become so successful he ‘has abandoned the Left for tax reasons’ – is ‘renowned for his comic roles’. Not this one. he takes up a lot of space, but nothing amusing gets through his big hair, bushy beard and bulky cerise velvet three-piece suit.

As Philip, simon Bird struggles even to suggest a staggering lack of emotional intelligence. he just seems ridiculously slow on the uptake. his friend don, played by tom Rosenthal, declares at one point that he is ‘bloodless, etiolated’, which sums up his performance and this production very neatly

Until 22 July at Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall, London SW1: 0844-871 7632; 

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