About Time You Saw: The PhilanthropistBy Hayley Thompson
Written as a ‘bourgeois comedy’ by a 23-year-old Christopher Hampton, The Philanthropist, first performed in 1970 at the Royal Court, has (arguably) become one of Hampton’s greatest theatrical successes. Famed as the play that mirrored Moliere’s Le Misanthrope, it’s now almost 50 years later, as it sits in its new home, The Trafalgar Studios, feeling remarkably un-aged.
Perhaps this due to the notable injection of a youth: Hampton comments that actor turned director, Simon Callow, is the first to “actually read that bit” of the stage directions.
Original runs of the production have been portrayed by Alec McCowen and Jane Asher, much later in their careers, but this time round the gang of younger players, including Simon Bird, Tom Rosenthal and Charlotte Rictchie – better known for their roles in television comedy – bring a surge of spirited humour to the performance. It is a shame however, that past the comedic values brought to the stage there is little depth to the portrayals of what must surely have been written as very sad characters.
The story follows Philip, (Simon Bird) a Philology lecturer, who through his ever-compulsively compliant nature manages to reap havoc amongst his peers, as he simply can’t do right for doing right.
Fans of Bird should enjoy seeing him (basically typecast) as Philip, who bumbles his way through the life, devoid of emotional intelligence, but packed full of politeness. First managing to cause an accidental death, casually alienating his fiancée, before proving too meagre to shun the advances of another woman.
Bird’s Friday Night Dinner co-star, Tom Rosenthal, provides the perfect buoyancy to Bird’s dithering Philip, in the form of the character Don. Charlotte Rictchie has some good moments playing opposite our ‘hero’ as his side-lined Fiancée and Lily Cole creates an amusing temptress – with an interesting accent. While Matt Berry, despite his loud ensemble, is far subtler in his delivery of a vile and famous novelist, than we’re used to seeing in his role as TV’s Toast of London.
In all this is still a play worth seeing, especially for those who are unfamiliar with both Hampton and The Philanthropist. The central notions of selfish, wealthy, unmoved characters who are unaffected by the horrors of the outside world will unfortunately resonate with today’s audience. Who might also find some of the play’s context eerily recognisable in between the laughs.