Theatre

Review: The Philanthropist at Trafalgar Studios

Christopher Hampton’s acerbic comedy, The Philanthropist, returns to London starring Matt Berry and Simon Bird.

West End favourite and all-round luvvie Simon Callow directs, but doesn’t star in, this sharp new revival of ’60s-set satire, The Philanthropist.

He’s instead rounded up a cast of stage and screen’s hottest young stars to breathe new life into this tongue-in-cheek slice of campus action, which along with Berry and Bird includes Charlotte Ritchie (Fresh Meat, Call the Midwife), Tom Rosenthal (Plebs, Friday Night Dinner) and supermodel-turned-actress Lily Cole.

Famously, the play inverts Molière’s classic comedy The Misanthrope (clearly the man of the moment, with both The Miser and Don Juan in Soho already enjoying revivals in the West End) and focuses on a young philologist whose compulsive likability simply ends upsetting everyone around him.

More broadly, the play follows Philip (Bird) and Don (Rosenthal), their girlfriends (Ritchie and Cole) and arrogant novelist Braham (Berry) as they gather over a dinner party and countless drinks to spend an evening talking about their vacuous private lives and personal interests.

Meanwhile, in the outside world, the PM is assassinated and terrorists have declared war on 25 English writers – much to the seemingly shared apathy of the academics inside.

By the end of the night (and act one), a series of confusions and misunderstandings result in some ill-advised couple-swapping, where lifts home and secret desires mix and meld the group in unexpected ways…

In the titular role, Bird is on great form. Essentially he’s playing a heightened version of his career-making character Will from hit TV comedy The In-Betweeners, but it works perfectly here as studious, nerdy Philip. He’s awkward and totally unsexy – but in the most charming of ways – which all adds to the silliness and humour of the plot that builds around him.

Like Bird, Berry’s bumptious novelist is also as familiar as ever: his voice is booming and, like in most things Berry is famous for (most notably, Toast of London), it’s a little bit like watching a man from another era. His huge hulking frame is a delight to behold – especially when paired with an appropriately fetching purple velvet suit.

The biggest surprise of the evening though is Rosenthal, who demonstrates real stage presence. His role as bumbling academic Don is a rollicking affair, and he spews words in a brilliantly absurd manner so that he becomes quite captivating. His interplay with Bird (who he’s previously starred alongside with in Friday Night Dinner), especially, is a real joy.

Ultimately though, this is a play about the writing, not the delivery, and Hampton’s script is bold, caustic and deeply pertinent. It’s quite astonishing how the ‘60s script still feels so relevant – how a society falling apart and random acts of violence seem to be accepted as the norm by these apparently educated characters.

As such, the play is able to blend tragedy and comedy quite seamlessly, and what it manages to convey in the terror that lies underneath the surface of amiability is suitably exposed through a thrilling use of language and linguistics.

The Philanthropist is showing until 22 July at Trafalgar Studios. Tickets are available now via Ticketmaster.co.uk.

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