Satire gets stuck in the shallows
CHRISTOPHER HAMPTON’S university-set 1969 satire makes its telling point early on. But, by the second half of the play, it’s a case of diminishing returns. Set in a don’s ivory-tower digs, the characters are a group of Oxbridge tutors and postgrad students who have self-absorption down to a fine art, the kind of people who are unconcerned by anything that doesn’t actually fall on their head.
A violent accidental death in their midst is shrugged off. The mass murder of the government’s entire front bench in parliament is of only passing interest. Who are these people who callously disregard the suffering of others? Why, the cloistered cream of our society, of course.
For this rare revival, fruity thesp Simon Callow directs an ill-judged production populated by a bevy of actors, standup comedians and sitcom performers. They include Friday Night Dinner’s Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal, model Lily Cole and comedian Matt Berry.
Their characters congregate for a dinner party of lively, self-consciously sophisticated conversation hosted by socially awkward academic Philip, played by Bird.
His fiancée is Charlotte Ritchie’s urbane Celia. And it is this mismatched relationship, examined over
the course of the dreary second half, that Hampton excavates for signs of an emotional life in this lot. In the case of Philip it is like searching for water on Mars.
At no point is the relationship believable. Much of the acting talent here has been honed in light comedy and there is just not the range to plumb depths deeper than shallow. Being the focus of the play, Bird is especially exposed. His every gesture expresses a geeky gaucheness, and little else. Rosenthal as Philip’s more rounded friend is better and so is Cole whose intimidatingly sexual Araminta has a stillness and poise. Meanwhile, Berry delivers a Brian Blessed-like turn as a boorish writer and professional contrarian whose narcissism is displayed by his purple velvet suit. Hampton later wrote some fine plays and became best known as a translator of French drama, including Dangerous Liaisons and the later wave of French plays by Yasmina Reza and Florian Zeller.
But Callow’s direction of this early work does it no favours. Mood is unsubtly modulated with lighting, sometimes so clumsily it is seems lonely Philip might be living with a poltergeist.
Most fatal of all, however, is that the evening evokes university life in the wrong kind of way; not because it is set in a university but because this is the kind of naïvely acted and directed production you might expect to be put on by students.
Simon Bird, Tom Rosenthal and Matt Berry