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BWW Review: THE PHILANTHROPIST, Trafalgar Studios

Christopher Hampton's 1969 take on Molière's The Misanthrope is often played with actors older than their characters, but director Simon Callow has recruited some of TV's bright young things to play the solipsistic academics. It may well attract new audiences to the West End, but this uncomfortable revival is unlikely to capitalise on that influx.

The immediate issue is playing style. There's a distinct lack of projection - both vocal and dramatic - and a first half that should be fuelled by fast-paced, absurdist wit is fatally sluggish. The lack of theatrical experience shows in the abundance of stilted moments and missed connections; it's a collection of individual performances of varying success, rather than a cohesive ensemble.

Simon Bird (The Inbetweeners) is philology professor Philip, whose inability to criticise or disagree creates havoc. He can conjure complex anagrams and analyse linguistics, but is completely illiterate when it comes to complex emotion and social cues. His benign disengagement drives a playwright to suicide and infuriates a novelist who thrives on controversy, and he meanders unwillingly towards infidelity.

Bird plays him as a baffled but amiable nerd, making his literal-mindedness rather endearing. His later admission that, though hopeless at relating to people, he needs companionship to keep the darkness at bay is sweetly sincere, but Bird stumbles in the transition from sitcom punchlines to existential crisis; it's a performance notably lacking the Chekhovian heft of previous inhabitants like Simon Russell Beale.

Charlotte Ritchie fares much better as fiancée Celia, understandably incensed by Philip's obtuseness, yet sympathetic to his struggles; though she can dissemble, she's similarly adrift. But the standout supporting turn comes from Tom Rosenthal, amusing and thoroughly convincing as the perceptive but callous academic who's made an art form out of inactivity.

As the brash novelist cheerfully selling out his left-wing principles for fame, cash and women, Matt Berry makes a memorable entrance, resplendent in a bright purple suit and stylishly draped coat. Toast of London fans are treated to the odd fruity pronunciation ("sherry" gets a workout), but it's a more muted turn than might be expected - in keeping with Callow's vacillating production, which doesn't commit to either full-throttle, surreal metatheaticality or compelling drama.

The weakest link is model-turned-actress Lily Cole as vamp Araminta, who wafts around prettily and drapes herself across furniture, but whose speech has the bizarrely plummy froideur of a minor royal feigning interest in a factory assembly line.

She's not entirely to blame, as the women here are mainly written as decorative objects, passed around by and occasionally admiring the deeper musings of men. Liz is a throwaway gag - she doesn't speak at all - while Celia's small talk features unwanted sexual attention from colleagues and Araminta casually relates horrifying abuse.

Suffice to say elements of Hampton's play have not dated well, and some have picked up unfortunate resonance; there's reference to a murderous attack on Parliament, a satirical point about the insularity of academia overtaken by recent events.

Crucially, Callow's production never fully justifies the necessity of revisiting this material, nor does he have a sure handle on its tricky combination of social lampooning, farce, knowing writerly deconstruction and real poignancy. The blocking feels perfunctory, though it's certainly an attractive if static picture in Libby Watson's cool white set, against which the colourful rows of books, drinks trolley and groovy period costumes pop.

There are ideas here still worth exploring, like the temptations of escapist art and news blackouts, the fear of isolation, and the growing tendency to examine the form of speech rather than the substance, but in this production, neither form nor substance really convince.

The Philanthropist at Trafalgar Studios until 22 July

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

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From This Author Marianka Swain