Satire gets stuck in the shal­lows

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - THEATRE JOHN NATHAN The Phi­lan­thropist

Trafal­gar Studios

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.

PHOTO: MANUEL HARLAN

Si­mon Bird, Tom Rosen­thal and Matt Berry

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