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TV stars can’t save this Molière-than-thou comedy


The Philanthropist, Trafalgar Studios


If you’ve booked to see this 1970 ‘bourgeois comedy’ from Christopher Hampton, it’s almost certainly because of its poster-friendly cast. Plucked like fish from the waters of prime time comedy, Matt Berry, Charlotte Ritchie, Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal play a group of self-absorbed academics, thinkers and graduate students at an unnamed English university in the 1960s.

Like rare creatures who have been starved of sunlight, several of these emotionally etiolated characters sport an aggressively dysfunctional intellectual tic, from Rosenthal’s chirpily sour-souled Don, who is strenuously cultivating a life of idleness, and Berry’s egotistical novelist Braham (eye-poppingly present in an even more egotistical magenta suit), to Bird’s Philip — a socially illiterate academic who uselessly tries to be as nice as possible to everyone, including Lily Cole’s sexually predatory Araminta, with whom he unhappily falls into bed.

Hampton’s play is adored by some for its witty inversion of Molière’s Misanthrope but it’s hard to discern its virtues (or excuse its dated sexual politics) in Simon Callow’s cynically conceived revival, which often feels as flat as the white surfaces of Libby Watson’s set. Oh it’s passable enough, with Rosenthal in particular the source of several lemon-tart one liners and Ritchie doing the best she can with Phil’s fiancée Celia. But Callow never captures the play’s very particular comic shifts, while poor Bird is all at sea with Phil, whose loneliness is — or rather, ought to be — the oomph that gives this shallow conceit of a play some emotional heft. Mainly, though, this production makes you think of The Miser up the road — another Molière-inspired show seemingly put together purely on the basis the cast are well known on TV.