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Review: The Philanthropist at Trafalgar Studios

Simon Callow directs Christopher Hampton’s comedy take on Molière’s Le Misanthrope

28 April, 2017 — By Catherine Usher

Simon Bird as Philip in a comedy twist on Molière. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Trafalgar Studios has had a string of sitting room-based comedies and dramas featuring big-name actors recently (The Spoils, Buried Child), so The Philanthropist settles comfortably into the venue with another gaggle of famous faces at the helm.

Christopher Hampton’s 1970 comedy inverts Molière’s Le Misanthrope so that society-hating Alceste becomes the affable Philip, who nonetheless manages to rub people up the wrong way.

Simon Bird doesn’t deviate too far from his routine for Channel 4’s Inbetweeners to portray Philip. He is basically a 1960s Will without the undercurrent of teenaged spitefulness – he’s academic, nervous around women, genuine and sweetly gullible.

Directed by theatrical stalwart Simon Callow, there’s certainly a television vibe going on within the cast. Even the small role of prickly playwright John is played by John Seaward, who turns out to be dim-witted Big John from The Inbetweeners.

A confident seducer with a booming voice, Matt Berry is being Matt Berry – in a velvet suit – and Call The Midwife/Fresh Meat’s Charlotte Ritchie has “feisty and endearing, whatever the decade” nailed.

Matt Berry in The Philanthropist

Lily Cole’s complex, conflicted and charismatic portrayal of Araminta is an unexpected highlight. All long limbs and Bambi eyes, the model comes into her own as the (semi-) jilted lover and the supermodel snobbery filter slips slowly from the audience’s gaze.

The central dinner party scene is all rather clever and pompous, but somehow gets away with being so smug. The women provide an interesting contrast but suggest a degree of caricature – there’s the smiling yet silent Elizabeth (Lowenna Melrose), the worldly, sometimes shrewish Celia (Ritchie) and the flame-haired temptress Araminta.

The actresses are clearly striving to make their characters as rounded as possible – and they succeed to a degree. The acerbic Donald (Tom Rosenthal) is most fun when he’s quietly observing the other party guests – and silently judging them.

Bird is a comforting presence throughout in his sparkling white yet homely, book-lined abode. The audience could happily spend all evening in his company – on reflection, just over two hours seems somewhat stingy.

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