The Theatreguide.London Review
Trafalgar Studios Spring 2017
The hardest kind of show to review is one that is just O K, when you know from past experience that it could have been done so very much better, and that the audience being mildly entertained is being short-changed without realising it.
Christopher Hampton's Philanthropist is on one level a witty comedy of manners, in which overeducated characters who have been reading too much Oscar Wilde self-consciously talk in epigrams and aphorisms.
Until the style inevitably gets a little boring and predictable it is a lot of fun, and director Simon Callow leads his cast – largely TV comic actors who know how to punch up a one-liner – to make the most of them.
Thus the mild entertainment. But The Philanthropist is very much more than that, and Callow and his cast miss almost all the rest.
In Moliere's The Misanthrope a man sets out to be offensive and is a little surprised when his friends refuse to be offended. In Hampton's Philanthropist a man just wants to be friendly and likeable, and is surprised when his blandness annoys everyone.
We're in Oxford, among dons and grad students. Our hero is a professor of the most boring subject Hampton could think of, philology, but is actually very happy in his world of words-as-things-to-analyse – certainly more at home than he is in the world of people.
He does try his hardest to be friendly to everybody, but two things go wrong. First, people more accustomed to cynicism are inclined to take his mild compliments and mild expressions of amity as ironic and sarcastic, and react to what they deduce are veiled insults.
And second, there are some among his circle – like his fiancee, for example, or the girl who sets out to seduce him – who have legitimate reason to expect more than mild friendliness from him.
You can see, I hope, the opportunities for something more than a surface of brittle wit to the play, and it's not as if the playwright hid them. The verbal cleverness disappears for whole scenes while the characters are reaching for real emotions.
There are legitimate psychological questions – why does he feel the need to be so nice, and why does that annoy everyone? - and serious dramatic moments, as when his girlfriend has finally to decide whether she can be happy with a life of such undifferentiated niceness.
And like all first-rate comedies, Hampton's play can raise such deeper issues without losing the overall comic tone.
Simon Callow and his cast do not find – and don't seem ever to have looked for – any of this. None of the characters, not even the central nice guy, is ever explored beyond the surface, and thus too few of them have any real identity as characters.
They might as well not have been given names, but just labelled Friend, Extra Girl, Guy Who Is Only In Scene One, and the like.
When everyone in a play misses what could be there, they've been directed to, and the blame lies entirely with the director, who has not encouraged them to look past the clever lines.
As the title character Simon Bird plays generic Woody Allen nerd, with the occasional line reading that is so out of keeping with the rest of his delivery, and so how Simon Callow would speak it, that the director must have just told him to say it that way, and character consistency be damned.
As a pompous and self-satisfied visiting novelist, Matt Berry plays every line and every moment in direct imitation of Simon Callow (which, as it turns out, works fine), while Lily Cole as the seductress keeps slipping in and out of Bette Davis mannerisms and speech patterns (which doesn't).
Charlotte Ritchie (fiancee) and Tom Rosenthal (friend) struggle to find any sense of character at all.
The man next to me, a tourist who had chosen this play more-or-less at random, said at the end 'Well, I enjoyed that', in a tone that suggested more trying to convince himself than real enthusiasm.
Audiences shouldn't have to convince themselves a play is good. That's the actors' and director's job.
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