I remember seeing the theatre listings in my early teens and noticing The Philanthropist on in the West End and thinking, “what an interesting title. I must look it up.” I can’t remember if I did; I doubt if I’d have been much the wiser. Nevertheless, the lure of this play stayed with me and it was one of the first batch of play texts that I was given as a present from the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle for Christmas 1975. How much of it I fully understood, is questionable. However, I really loved it – particularly that coup de theatre of a first scene, which I note still draws a huge gasp of breath and uncomfortable nervous laughter throughout the subsequent scene change. Ever since, I’ve always wanted to see a production so that I could judge it for myself. And it’s taken forty-two years for me to achieve it!
So, having booked it as soon as it went on sale, imagine my disappointment after it opened and the word got around that it was terrible. One four-star review from the Daily Telegraph; but a distinct handful of one-star reviews almost made me rue my initial enthusiasm. I’d booked for halfway through the run and I rather expected it to have closed before my chance came around. But no, it’s still going; and judging from Saturday’s matinee performance, business isn’t too bad, and the production itself is extremely enjoyable!
Christopher Hampton called it a “bourgeois comedy” with a cheeky nod to the Royal Court, that left-wing palace of the avant-garde, where the original production was staged. It’s also a nod to Molière, whose influence on modern theatre simply won’t go away, with Don Juan in Soho still at Wyndham’s (just), and The Miser having just left the Garrick. One of Molière’s masterpieces is Le Misanthrope, a comedy of manners where the central character rejects the conventions of the day and refuses to see the good in people, and just criticises and complains at everything and everyone with whom he comes into contact. Alceste, the Misanthrope, is the exact reverse of Philip in The Philanthropist, who always sees the good in everything and finds it impossible to criticise. That’s why he can’t lecture in English Literature, only in philology.
The play follows the fortune of Philip over a tense few days as he and his colleague Don listen to a keen young playwright read through his script, with disastrous consequences; and then a few days later as Philip and his fiancée Celia host a dinner party spoiled by some awful guests. Life will never be the same and there are some hard questions to be answered the morning after the night before. Can Philip square the circle and carry on? You’ll have to watch it to find out.
What I always loved about this play is its intelligent script; maybe today it’s a little show-offy but that probably appealed to the 15-year-old me. As Mrs Chrisparkle and I were watching it I realised (and she recognised) that it contains many of my favourite little quotes with which I have peppered my day to day conversations over the intervening decades: “it’s far more important for a theory to be shapely than for it to be true”; “Now perhaps you’ll oblige us with a fart”; “Darling, I hope you’re not going to be bourgeois about this, but I’m going to leave you and the children for a few months.” The 23-year-old Christopher Hampton had a truly sparkling turn of phrase that I have always relished.
The play was written in 1970 and it’s firmly staying there, but I enjoyed the 70s clothing and other contemporary staging details; and talk of the Prime Minister and the front bench being mown down in an assassination attack is more relevant today, although probably less funny. The character types are still eminently recognisable; there’ll always be characters like Philip: well-meaning, inept, too cerebral for their own good; not bad at friendships but hopeless in love; measuring out their lives with coffee spoons, like Prufrock. There’ll always be characters like Braham too; full of conceited, empty swagger, complacent in their ability to turn a nifty phrase, who will ride roughshod over others’ feelings and relationships, simply because he can.
Simon Callow’s production seems very faithful to the original stage directions, with even the same choice of music to bridge the gap between scenes. He’s definitely letting the script do the talking. He has accumulated a cast of young TV actors, which will no doubt help put bums on seats, although I’ve never seen any of the shows they are in, so I didn’t know any of them from Adam. I thought Simon Bird was excellent as Philip, really conveying the character’s total uselessness and sheer lack of harmfulness. He allows himself the time to wallow in some superb crushed facial expressions and lines, and I felt sorry for him just as much as I laughed at him.
Charlotte Ritchie is also extremely good as Celia; no nonsense with her public criticisms of Philip, her cut glass sideswipes really hitting home. As her character develops you get a strong sense of her own inner dilemmas, and how hard it is for her to come to a conclusion as to what to do; I thought she was very impressive. And we both really liked Lily Cole as Araminta, provocatively reclining so as to make the maximum impression on Philip; notching up another number on the bedpost for no reason other than her own weakness, even though she gains no benefit from it.
It’s a very enjoyable production of Christopher Hampton’s first big success, and it’s really interesting to see it full of life all these years later. I’m very glad to have finally seen it! It’s on until 22nd July.
P. S. When I booked, the Trafalgar Studios was still part of the ATG theatre group. Today, however, they are the first procurement of the new TEG – Trafalgar Entertainment Group – run by Sir Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire – who were the chief execs of the ATG group. Such are the ways of big business. The downside is that your ATG membership card will no longer get you 10% off at the bar. The good news is that they’ve really spiced up the bar experience and I can definitely recommend a bottle of the Verdejo to accompany your theatregoing!
Production photos by Tristram Kenton