A “bland” disappointment which sits there “like a pudding, wobbling gently”. Celia’s (Charlotte Ritchie’s) description of her bookish fiance Philip (Simon Bird) which matches my critique of director Simon Callow’s seriously underpowered production of Christopher Hampton’s Tony-nominated play The Philanthropist which misfires more often than Theresa May’s “strong and stable” general election campaign.
There are some delightful exchanges such as Philip’s persistent offer of help “Can I do anything in the kitchen?” which is witheringly dismissed by Celia’s “I’ve yet to see any evidence of it”. And the odd zinger penetrates the hermetically sealed performances which rob the play of any sort of chemistry such as Braham’s (Matt Berry’s) criticism of socialism as “about as much use to this country as a pogo-stick to a paraplegic”. But the production like the result of Philip’s self-analysis is “empty”.
Other than the questionable relevance of Hampton’s meticulously crafted script and its void of a character in Liz (Lowenna Melrose), the finger of blame lies elsewhere. Namely, Callow’s static direction which for long periods of time roots the actors in fixed positions and often faces them inwards rather than out towards the audience. And, secondly, the weak vocal delivery by most of the seven-strong cast, particularly Matt Berry whose softly-softly approach belies his Brian Blessed frame and garish purple suit.
On this last point, three faults are glaring: you could drive a vocal coach and horses through the yawning gaps between exchanges; Hampton’s fine lines are starved of energy by being broken into staccato chunks rather than driven from the first word to the full stop; and for a director rightfully famed for the rich timbre of his Dickensian declamations, it is astounding that he has let his cast of predominantly television actors speak in stage whispers.
There are fleeting moments of humour which like the aforementioned pudding wobble gently, but this flat and forgettable production which runs for another month (gulp!) can be summed up by an overheard remark by an unimpressed audience member who responded to the following question posed to Philip “Why are you telling me this?” with “Exactly!” In keeping with Philip’s love of anagrams, my verdict on The Philanthropist reads thus: H.R. Shite Atop Plinth!
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