When The Philanthropist was first announced, I was interested because of the cast. Simon Bird from The Inbetweeners, Matt Berry, Lily Cole, Tom Rosenthal and Charlotte Richie sounded like an impressive list. It is directed by Simon Callow, too, not exactly a stranger to the stage.
Christopher Hampton’s 1971 play, set in a university during that period, opens with a shocking first scene that – unfortunately for the rest of the play – is the best thing about it. From then on, nothing else is quite as exciting. The play is concerned with Philip (Simon Bird, who shines in the role), an awkward but likeable academic who is supposed to be engaged to Celia (Charlotte Richie), but whose plans are scuppered when Araminta (Lily Cole) sets her sights on him.
If you can get past the sexism and the cod psychology, there are some genuinely funny moments in The Philanthropist, but it has too many flaws to really allow me to warm to it. Matt Berry, who I do like as an actor on TV, seems awkward and subdued during his scene, and one actor, playing the unfortunate Liz, doesn’t have anything to say at all. A background subplot concerning a terrorist attack on Members of Parliament seems confusing, pointless and also in rather bad taste.
The title of the play confused me, possibly as my understanding of a philanthropist is someone who gives large amounts of money to charity. It is, however, meant to refer to Philip, whose philanthropy is more moral, a nod by Christopher Hampton to Moliere’s The Misanthrope.
Sometimes, I am reminded that a starry cast does not necessarily make a play worth watching. Sadly, that is the case here. In better news, the second entrance into the auditorium at the Trafalgar Studios (next to the first few rows) has been reinstated – meaning a lot less pressure on the upstairs toilets. Hey, these things are important.