20th April 2017
Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist is a play that achieved great success in the 1960s, even going on to secure three Tony nominations. However, it is hard to see any stardust in this funny yet lightweight version, featuring a youthful yet star-heavy cast.
A rethinking of the Misanthrope by Moliere, it is an English drawing room comedy covering a day in the lives of Oxford students. Sweet but supine Philip is too weak to resist the charms of a dinner party guest, whilst his fiancée Celia similarly strays with larger than life author Braham. The pair quickly reflect on their incompatibility and how Philip’s excessive kindness causes more pain than relief.
Whilst this play benefits from an exceedingly clever start and ending, what lies in between is about as weak and unsubstantial as Philip himself. Whilst Hampton gives his students some lyrical and ponderous conversations, they do not make for great theatre.
If this was unfolding at a party, you’d make your excuses and go to another room. To sit through it can often be a chore; the second half takes an eternity to say not much at all, as Philip and Celia conduct some tedious self-analysis through everlasting speeches.
The play is much stronger when it is on a comic footing; most of the cast come from a comedy background and there are brief flurries of Wildean wit which are very entertaining. However, the characters aren’t well developed enough and the acting isn’t nuanced enough to build the play’s emotional climax.
The most well-balanced turn comes from Tom Rosenthal as the lazy lecturer Donald, whilst Lily Cole puts in an impressive performance as Araminta.
These exceptions apart, the play is often funny and yet very rarely touching; a missing ingredient which stops this production hitting the heights of its previous iterations.
Simon Bird’s Philip is likeable as Philip but it is hard not to see where Philip begins and Will McKenzie ends; a loveable buffoon is more a punchline than a fleshed out person.
A combination of bad casting and lacklustre directing from Simon Callow leads to an ultimately disappointing evening; the greatest act of philanthropy would be to scrap it and start again.