The Theatreguide.London Review
Donmar Theatre Autumn 2005
Like its inspiration, Moliere's Misanthrope, Christopher Hampton's 1970 comedy is a satirical look at love and betrayals among the urbane and witty classes.
And thanks to a sensitive director and brave actor, this revival is also, for the first time in my experience of the play, a touching portrait of a little man who, like Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, comes face to face with the emptiness of his life.
The scene is the comfortable lodgings of the self-admittedly dull little Oxford philology don Philip. Inexplicably (to him) he is engaged to a lovely postgraduate student, and the first major scene of the play shows them entertaining friends among the faculty and students, along with a visiting popular novelist.
Hampton captures perfectly the mix of genteel wit and veiled backbiting that characterises such encounters, and it is easy to enjoy the play entirely on that level, with lines like 'Masturbation is the thinking man's television' or description of the successful writer as having been 'forced to abandon the left wing for tax reasons.'
But the opening scenes also make it clear that Philip, who (as the title suggests) is a genuinely nice guy who enjoys getting along with everybody, is completely out of step and out of his depth with this crowd, who instinctively assume that there are subtle insults behind every nice thing he says, just because that's the way they would speak and think.
When a comical string of post-party musical beds threatens his engagement, Philip is forced to acknowledge that his indiscriminate friendliness is the product of a deep loneliness and insufficiency in himself, and then to face the prospect of carrying on now that he has looked that demon in the eye.
All this is in the play, but never before has that last movement been so prominent and so deeply touching as in David Grindley's new revival for the Donmar and in Simon Russell Beale's play-redefining performance.
If I tell you that previous West End Philips have been Alec McCowen and Edward Fox, you will have a sense of the social inadequacy but core steeliness with which they invested the role.
Russell Beale subtly makes it clear from the start that being friendly is not natural to the man, but something he is constantly working at - the strain is evident if its reasons are at first not.
The eagerness with which he rushes to cover even the slightest social awkwardness, and the sheer terror on his face when a predatory female comes on to him, all prepare us for the moment in which he faces and acknowledges the terror that drives him.
An extended speech in which he describes his full, happy and privileged life and then recognises how empty it is, is made far more real than it has ever seemed before, and all because of the actor.
That much of this new sensitivity and depth must also be credited to director David Grindley is proven by similar new resonances found by other members of the cast.
Danny Webb plays Philip's happy-go-lucky fellow don, but in a late-play counterpart to Philip's self-discovery, he describes his own shallow and empty life with an emphasis on how happy he is with it - except that the actor shows that the words he is speaking aren't true and that his veneer of contentment just hasn't cracked yet.
Anna Madely as the fiancée forced by events to ask just why (and whether) she loves this strange little man, Siobhan Hewlett as the notch-on-the-bedpost collecting femme fatale, and Simon Day as the writer for whom being wittily boorish is just part of the job all also find dimensions to their characters previous casts haven't.
The witty satire of manners Hampton wrote in 1970 is still there, but the other, more moving play he also wrote sits alongside it for the first time, and the combination is a deeply satisfying piece of theatre.
Receive alerts every time we post a new review