Review Round-Ups

Did The Philanthropist get top marks from the critics?

Simon Callow revives Christopher Hampton’s 1970 play

Holly Williams, WhatsOnStage


"First staged in 1970, Christopher Hampton's comedy about a mild-mannered, people-pleasing Oxford academic gets a revival stuffed with comic actors off the telly. You can see why: this groaning period piece, directed by Simon Callow, needs all the comedic help it can get. It's not enough."

"While individual actors nail occasional zingers, the dialogue needs to really snap and crackle if this play is going to, well, pop; here, there seem to be weird spaces between the barbs. Callow's physical blocking around Libby Watson's elegant white set is often lumpen too."

"We're also treated to a monologue about why Araminta (Lily Cole) sleeps with every man she can. Because she enjoys it, perhaps? Oh no, my bad: because she was raped by an uncle and once locked in a room for a week by a partner. I think you need good reasons to put on plays that feature ill-thought-through speeches about sexual abuse, unquestioningly stage dated double-standards, and operate as male wish-fulfilment, all at the same time. This production fails to mount a case."

"While there is much fizzy talent here, it simply does not match up with the play."

Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard

"After a promising first few minutes it turns out to be a woeful dud, in which the flashes of wit in Christopher Hampton’s '70s play are routinely missed."

"Hampton’s key idea is that Philip’s inability to exhibit even a hint of misanthropy causes mayhem rather than bliss. As he tries to make everyone happy but blunders deeper and deeper into the emotional wilderness, his haplessly non-judgemental manner should be profoundly sad. At the same time the smug insularity of those around him ought to appear beguilingly surreal."

"Yet while Simon Callow’s production is easy on the eye — mainly thanks to Libby Watson’s elegant design — there’s little else to admire."

"There’s no chemistry between the performers, who often look ill at ease. The result is two very long hours, stilted and lacking theatrical vitality. As joke after joke fails to land the play ends up seeming thin, dated and tedious. The whole venture feels misconceived."

Michael Billington, The Guardian


"Christopher Hampton’s comedy of academic life has always been performed by actors older than the playwright’s specified age ranges, so it must have seemed a bright idea to recruit young stars… Despite the best efforts of Simon Callow as director, however, the relative theatrical inexperience of the cast is clear and deprives the play of emotional texture."

"I think the age of the actors matters far less than their depth of experience and understanding. Bird is perfectly passable as Philip and has some good moments. You believe him when he says: "I haven’t even got the courage of my lack of convictions"; and he renders a crucial speech about the acute solitude that is part of the privileged life of the bachelor don with total sincerity."

"The rest of the cast is variable. The best performance comes from Tom Rosenthal, who, as a colleague of Philip’s who is "more than half in love with easeful sloth", captures exactly the kind of cultivated idleness that was once a feature of academic life (less so I suspect, in today’s age of targets and tight budgets)."

"I would still recommend the play to those who have never seen it: The Philanthropist offers a memorable portrait not only of academic insularity but also of the destructive nature of reflex niceness."

Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph


Charlotte Ritchie (Celia), Simon Bird (Philip) and Matt Berry (Braham)
Charlotte Ritchie (Celia), Simon Bird (Philip) and Matt Berry (Braham)
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

"Hampton was turning Molière’s The Misanthrope – a misfit on account of his inveterate contempt for others – on its head, achieving a theatrical trick that reveals a truth; an evening that begins like a joke and winds up leaving you sick to the stomach."

"Callow has certainly struck gold with leading man Simon Bird, who first winged to fame on the back of nerdish, gauche, bright-spark Will in the teen sitcom The Inbetweeners. Bird has a tough act to follow – the last incumbent in this role, in 2005 at the Donmar, was the peerless Simon Russell Beale – but he delivers the goods by subtle incremental means, the thespian equivalent of a 3D printer."

"With so much TV talent that’s fresh to the stage on display here, the standard charge that the small-screen begets small voices sticks somewhat. Things take their time to settle into a ringingly articulate groove, not helped by a disconcerting early scene that flags male suicide as a theme then presents an eerily topical reference to a lone terrorist attack on the Houses of Parliament."

"The production works like a bleakly amusing charm and, for those who’ve not seen the play before, it’s a treat – nay, steep ticket-prices aside, philanthropic gift."

Natasha Tripney, The Stage

"This is one of the most misguided revivals you’re likely to see on stage this year, seemingly intent on sabotaging itself at every step. The dialogue is thrown around like a series of misshapen paper aeroplanes and hardly any of the lines land successfully. Most of the cast members look visibly uncomfortable."

"Simon Bird, in his second stage role, is out of his depth as Philip, the shy, amiable philologist with a penchant for anagrams. He’s fine with the wordy-nerdy stuff but when the role demands a little more emotional complexity he looks mildly terrified."

"Matt Berry’s brief turn as a randy writer with an outsize ego is even more disappointing. His delivery is erratic, his sonorous Steven Toast tones curiously underused, and he’s frequently in danger of being outperformed by his fuchsia suit."

"It’s prettily designed, I’ll give it that. Libby Watson’s white-walled, book-lined set is attractive, but even the lighting cues feel ham-fisted."

The Philanthropist runs at Trafalgar Studios until 22 July.