If you were to make a list of the biggest and best UK comedies that have aired over the past decade, there’s a good chance you’d find most of the cast of The Philanthropist in there somewhere.
The IT Crowd, Fresh Meat – check and check. Oh, and the two leads from Channel 4’s Friday Night Dinner, too.
Securing some of the most demanded TV actors in Simon Bird, Charlotte Ritchie, Tom Rosenthal, Matt Berry and Lily Cole for the play’s run at Trafalgar Studios is pretty impressive, and for this revival of Christopher Hampton’s 1970 play (written when he was just 23, no less), arguably the most noteworthy element is the cast.
Much has been made of the fact this production features such a youthful line-up despite, as Hampton points out, the fact that his initial stage direction actually dictates that the cast are aged between 25 and 33. “Nobody’s ever read that bit before,” he says. “It’s always been done by actors in their 40s at least. Technically, the central role is quite tricky and directors’ instincts have always been to turn to a safe pair of hands.”
In Bird’s hands, lead character Philip is certainly safe. His physicality means that he doesn’t need to open his mouth before being terribly funny, but he’s also stretched more than in his most notable roles to date. He’s able to bring huge heaps of pathos, too.
Philip is socially awkward and unsuccessful with women (where have we seen Bird do that before?) and is a don in an Oxbridge–esque university. He’s hosting a dinner party alongside fiancée Celia (Ritchie) for friend and fellow don Don (Rosenthal), arrogant novelist Braham (Berry) and the ethereal Araminta (Cole).
Offensively indecisive (“I don’t really mind” is his rhetoric), Philip finds himself facing up to the distain of Braham who bursts into the party as purple as a raspberry and is as welcome as a gooseberry, all while brandishing a cauliflower. Braham is so self-involved it’s a wonder Don ( Rosenthal) gets a word in to insult him. The tension and self-importance lingers like the smoke from their cigarettes, seeping into every corner of the sterile, white room.
“The point the play is making is that the characters are so insulated that whatever catastrophes go on in the outside world, they are unaffected,” says Hampton, and it’s clear this collection of intellectuals have little interest in a world outside academia or themselves.
Indeed, when there’s an eerily timely attack in parliament, Braham is aghast at the idea of listening to the news. Why would they concern themselves with such trivial matters such as the Prime Minister being assassinated when they have his tales to be regaled with? Berry is very suited to Braham, but his take on the character feels unnecessarily restrained.
Before the interval, the story is primed for everything to be unravelled and come tumbling down between Philip and Celia, and the second half absolutely belongs to Bird and Ritchie, both of whom are superb.
“You just sit there, wobbling like a pudding,” barks Celia as there are some eye-opening revelations on both sides from the pair which lead to a frank and full discussion about the state of their relationship that resembles a withering literary analysis rather than the dissolving of an engagement. “Lies,” states Celia, “are much more interesting than the truth.”
Collectively the majority of the stellar comedy cast have comparatively little stage experience, but it rarely shows.
The Philanthropist veers wildly between comedy, tragedy and tragi-comedy. The audience never knows where a pithy line, death, infidelity and betrayal will spring from next. It might be a comedy, but don’t expect big laughs.