In Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist, quiet, anagram-loving philology professor Phillip invites other academics to a party in his Oxbridge college-style home. A series of arguments and sexual entanglements ensue. This revival at the Trafalgar Studios, directed by Simon Callow, stars a host of famous television actors, including Matt Berry, Charlotte Ritchie, and Tom Rosenthal.

My first thought was that Libby Watson’s rather pristine set looked a lot like a doll’s house – an old-fashioned professor’s study and sitting room, all in white, except for the many colourful books and rugs. In fact, it was probably as shiny and new as it looked (I thought I could detect a faint smell of paint). The perspective is exaggerated – the house grows a lot narrower towards the back than it should – and the front corner of the room just forward into the auditorium, effectively creating two fourth walls while also inviting the audience in.

Then, I turned to the programme. Reading that this play is regarded as a sort of parallel to Molière’s The Misanthrope filled me with trepidation, not having enjoyed the Wyndham’s modernised production of Molière’s Don Juan very much. However, The Philanthropist is merely a response to Molière, not an adaptation.

Phillip is unassuming, self-deprecating, accommodating, and generally nice; and everyone seems to hate him for it. They cannot understand his character, taking his kindness for insults and misreading his docility as concealed menace. Ever-forgiving, he is the antithesis to Moliere’s candid and criticizing Misanthrope. As his friends ignore him, his fiancée leaves him, and much more occurs, one can’t help feeling sorry for him.

Charlotte Ritchie and Simon Bird in an innocent quarrel. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

The cast is undoubtedly talented. Tom Rosenthal’s Donald was perfectly irritating yet endearing. He was obviously enjoying the role – initially, he seemed on the brink of laughing at his own jokes! Donald is the character who first introduces the pseudo-Stoppard humour that characterises the rest of the show. There is a bit more farce and a bit less clever-clever in this play than would be in a Stoppard, but the parallels are obvious.

Charlotte Ritchie’s brightness was very engaging in her role as Philip’s fiancée Celia; Simon Bird fully inhabited the awkward, ill-fated protagonist; and Matt Berry was just being Matt Berry. However, it is clear the cast are primarily television actors – the frisson and depth that could have come from more seasoned stage actors’ performances isn’t there.

Simon Callow has decided to work with a cast of young actors, ones that fit the characters’ playing ages of late twenties – this play is usually staged with a much older cast. Their youth works well – still, the play is a bit static, and the dialogue is sometimes lacking in energy and therefore not as sharp as it should be.

I found myself wondering which of the seven deadly sins each of the seven characters is meant to represent – the mute Liz (Lowenna Melrose) and otherwise unknown John (John Seaward) make up the numbers. I got as far as deciding on the promiscuous Araminta as Lust, the unashamedly egotistic Braham as Greed, the cynical Celia as Wrath, and Donald, who gives a whole monologue about “perfecting the art of idleness”, would be Sloth. Then, my experiment started to fall apart, but it did reveal the rather one-dimensional nature of most of the characters.

Simon Bird, Matt Berry, Lily Cole, Tom Rosenthal, and Charlotte Ritchie. Photo by Manuel Harlan

This is one of those production that knows when it’s being obvious and over-the-top, but doesn’t care because it’s making everyone laugh. It’s aware of its genre – the ubiquitous British one-room comedy about a bunch of vaguely intellectual people – and it throws that laughingly in your face, right down to Donald’s brightly patterned socks. Many of the play’s jokes stem from its self-awareness – at one point, Braham alludes to having attended a production of The Misanthrope at La Comedie Française. “Classical French theatre”, he proclaims – “terrible camp old rubbish!”

Though The Philanthropist has strong links to The Misanthrope, I felt it had a lot of Oscar Wilde in it, specifically relating to The Importance of Being Earnest. Successful writer Braham especially, who enters the room as in a rather magnificent purple suit, had many aphoristic, anachronistic Wildean lines. Also, the scene of confrontation between Celia and Araminta, which takes place after Celia discovers that Araminta has slept with Philip, reminded me of the catty afternoon tea scene between Cecily and Gwendolen.

Lily Cole has such an overly prim and posh voice that I could almost hear a sarcastic ‘Dear Gwendolen’ dripping icily off her tongue. Also, in a later dialogue between Donald and Philip, Donald’s laziness and flippant witticisms were strongly reminiscent of Algernon Montcrief. If they were intended, these allusions worked well.

Lily Cole attentively reading ‘The Nature of Passion’. Photo by Marlin Harlan

I also enjoyed a lot of the theatrical gags used. Saying any more would spoil it, but the beginning and end of the play tie together very nicely through the use of a ‘quaint theatrical device’. Also, the scene changes are underscored by tinkling baroque music and the occasional bit of opera used for dramatic effect. A particularly funny moment for Philip arrives in the form of him very aggressively preparing a bowl of cornflakes (Algernon’s muffins?).

I was very surprised to find out that the try-out production of this play was staged at the Royal Court. This kind of thing would be very hard to find at the Royal Court today. It’s too typical – British intellectuals drinking wine and saying things that you usually have to be either well-read or sexually active to find funny. However, there is something very comforting about this kind of drawing room comedy, and the youth of this production’s cast lends freshness.

The audience liked it, and though it won’t be remembered as one of the year’s great plays, it was good to see a work by a classic playwright in a new production with a cast not used to this form. And there are some great lines in this play (mainly insults thrown at Philip) – from Celia telling him “you just sit there like a pudding, wobbling gently” and calling him a “triumph of emotional incompetence”, to him saying of himself, “my trouble is, I am a man of no convictions – or at least I think I am…”

The Philanthropist is playing Trafalgar Studios until 22 July.

Featured photo by Shaun Webb