First staged in 1970, Christopher Hampton‘s comedy (an inverted reflection of Moliere’s The Misanthrope) 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.
The Inbetweeners‘ Simon Bird plays the Philip of the title, a philologist (see what he did there) who throws a party for his colleagues. He’s typecast, but then he does manage to convey all this man’s nervousness in the way he holds his knees together, hands perched in a gesture as ingratiating as it is irritating.
His guests are a self-indulgent, solipsistic lot, given to out-doing each other in displays of callous sophistry. There’s dark, satiric humour in this, but it often seems weirdly overblown – that the entire cabinet has been gunned down by a terrorist is a pretty extreme off-hand backdrop, yet one that’s rarely alluded to.
Celia – Philip’s fiancé – is an almost cruelly confident literature student, played by Charlotte Ritchie, from Fresh Meat. The model Lily Cole plays Araminta, a vacuous femme fatale in a maxi-dress who glides around lissomely, and spouts an accent posher than the Queen’s. There’s a woman called Liz (Lowenna Melrose), a running joke because she never says anything (hilarious!). Tom Rosenthal’s indolent academic Don starts as a world-weary cynic, before leaping to the defence of socialism in the face of the unscrupulous Braham, a braying novelist who’s given up being left wing "for tax reasons" and has twigged that being controversial helps sell books. This, at least, doesn’t feel dated.
He’s played by Matt Berry in a cerise velvet suit and full Toast of London mode, always a joy. But 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.
While the first half is diverting, the second becomes eye-rolling. Philip sleeps with Araminta because he didn’t like to say no, and as his relationship falls apart we get a lot of naval-gazing that nonetheless remains in the same chirpy tone. He’s a man who studies words, but not their meaning, so there’s droll comedy in his complete inability to ever get the subtext of what others are saying – but Celia and Philip are so obviously ill-suited, it's seems only right they should break up. There's not much dramatically at stake when you're actually rooting for a couple to give up.
We’re also treated to a monologue about why Araminta 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.
The Philanthropist was written when Hampton was only 23 – and here gets a revival that for once casts actors in their late-twenties, early-thirties, as intended. But it's not revelatory: these academics act like old fogeys who sleep about a bit. There’s little in the way of parallels to the perma-youthful millennials the cast seem to have been brought in to evoke. While there is much fizzy talent here, it simply does not match up with the play.
The Philanthropist runs at Trafalgar Studios until 22 July.