Monday, 24 April 2017

Non-review: The Philanthropist

If the odds of me coming back after the interval are anything to go by, West End comedy plays are in dire straits this year. I made an early escape from The Miser, and now another play with a Molière connection, Christopher Hampton's The Philanthropist, had me rushing for the exit as well. Cast entirely through watching Channel 4 catch-up, plus that episode of Doctor Who where Lily Cole played a fish, Simon Callow's production offers little justification for why it should be revived. In roles they're patently too young for, Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal play stuffy university English lecturers who witness a (probably accidental) suicide in the opening scene. Perhaps out of empathy, the play also proceeds to die a death as Bird's Philip and his fiancée Celia (Charlotte Ritchie) host an evening of drinks for a few colleagues and a successful author.

There's undeniably bad timing in putting on a play that features a terrorist attack on Westminster as a casual comic subplot, just as one happens for real, but to be honest I'm not sure even without the specific parallels it could have come across in good taste, certainly not in the dismissive, ham-fisted way it's written here.

Maybe if any of the comedy worked, but Callow's production keeps everyone so low-key they've barely turned up. Matt Berry isn't exactly someone you go to for range, and as pompous author Braham he should have been in full Steven Toast mode, but even he's comparatively toned down. I have to blame both the material - there's that always-awful moment, where the characters are laughing their heads off at their own witticisms while the audience looks on in eerie silence - and Callow's direction, as this is a cast that looked good on paper - they're the reason I booked - but uniformly fail to deliver. Perhaps the second act would have given me a clue as to what exactly the point was, but when, even in a comparatively short first act, you're alternating between looking at your watch and the exit, that's a pretty solid hint to cut your losses, so that's what I did.

The Philanthropist by Christopher Hampton is booking until the 22nd of July at Trafalgar Studio 1.

Running time: Advertised as 2 hours 5 minutes.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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