Time Out says
Simon Bird struggles in this misjudged revival of an early Christopher Hampton play
For the first half, it almost works. ‘The Philanthropist’ is a 1969 play by Christopher Hampton, best known for his film and stage adaptations of ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’. This revival comes with an unusual director – plummy uber-thesp Simon Callow – and an unusual cast, including sitcom actors Simon Bird and Matt Berry, and model Lily Cole.
Some of the surrealist ’60s humour has aged terribly: an ongoing joke about a far-right terrorist gunning down a group of MPs feels entirely charmless in 2017.
But with some reservations it’s pretty solid, pre-interval. Unworldly Oxford don Philip (Bird) and his exasperated fiancée Celia (Charlotte Ritchie) are hosting a dinner party. Their most notable guest is awful novelist Braham (Berry), an outrageous provocateur and self-publicist whose considerable gifts are entirely channelled into working out what he can do that will horrify people the most. Playing Braham as a self-satisfied monster in an impressively hideous purple suit, Berry isn’t exactly stretched, but is pretty funny. And his sort-of-showdown with Philip is entertaining, as the blithe academic infuriates the puffed-up proto troll by failing to be even remotely offended by him.
The party ends with Philip unwittingly rebuffing Celia, instead being led to bed by his oversexed colleague Araminta (Cole, charming in a posh, one-dimensional way).
The second half is almost unbearable. Philip embarks on a tedious voyage of self-discovery, via long conversations with Araminta and then Celia, in which he becomes increasingly despondent about his inability to understand other people. I’m not convinced it’s great writing, but in the hands of a really strong actor – Simon Russell Beale was the last to play Philip on the London stage – it’s something to work with. Simon Bird, bless him, is not a really strong actor. A bemused grin and a couple of neurotic tics is pretty much his entire emotional range, but he’s required to anchor the entire play, in a role more tragic than comic. He’s simply not up to the job – pluckily droning through a role whose emotional nuances are far, far beyond him, with no Berry for light relief.
Why an old hand like Callow believed virtual stage newcomer Bird would be able to nail the part I can’t imagine. The director has assembled the perfect cast for a funny, youth-orientated play – but that’s not what ‘The Philanthropist’ is. Hardcore Berry fans might consider it, but otherwise it’s a desperate slog of an evening.