Trafalgar Studios, London – until 12 July 2017
“I’d much prefer to have honest criticism than your, if you don’t mind me saying so, negative remarks.”
The list of the NT2000 top 100 plays has proven quite an interesting one to keep to hand as it has often made me choose to see things I wouldn’t necessarily normally have gone to (with both good and bad results). The result of consultation with 800 playwrights, actors, directors, theatre professionals and arts journalists, the list purports to give us the 100 most significant plays of the 20th century, a subjective exercise at the best of times and one which throws up some real curveballs, like this play.
Written by Christopher Hampton in 1970, The Philanthropist was conceived as a response to Molière’s The Misanthrope, it’s the lead character’s unflappable amiability that causes havoc around him here. But for all the intertextuality, it feels a horrendously dated piece of writing that you can scarcely believe has had revivals in 2005 at the Donmar and 2009 on Broadway. With the likes of Simon Russell Beale and Matthew Broderick at their helm, they may have been better acted but in its gender politics, in its treatment of sexual abuse and suicide, how this play has got the reputation it has is beyond me.
But even if you put reservations about the play itself to one side, deeper problems arise in this fatally misjudged production. Simon Callow is credited as director but his cast of young TV faces are marooned on Libby Watson’s elegant, book-lined set, unable to make meaningful connection with each other, with the text, indeed with any discernibly human emotion. The show opened a good few weeks ago now so there’s no excuse for such onstage awkwardness, a palpable sense that they don’t know what to do with their bodies, and Callow surely has to shoulder most of the blame here.
For even if the cast lack considerable stage experience, there’s TV and comedy chops aplenty here which are just wasted. Matt Berry, resplendent in a suit the very shade of Vimto, is the worst offender as his arrogant writer falls flat (snapping at the cast member who helped him with a forgotten line didn’t much endear him) and as lead character Philip, Simon Bird is scarcely more than a ripple on a pond, his nerdish appeal only getting him so far into a script that requires far more emotional heft. Lily Cole is doubly shafted by a terrible accent choice and a terribly written character but even then, contrives to sap any life out of her interactions.
Charlotte Ritchie manages to imbue Celia, Philip’s scarcely credible fiancée, with what heart she can and I did enjoy Tom Rosenthal’s sock choices as Philip’s archly amused friend and neighbour. But it is a real shame to think that those tempted in by the cast – quite possibly non-traditional theatregoers – are ending up with this lumpen mess.