It was the year of a June general election. It saw the Cambridge Garden House hotel student riot, the publication of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and the first “Women’s Lib” conference – the disbanding of the Beatles, too.
Yes, you’ve guessed it – it was 1970, and in August at the Royal Court, a young, blazingly talented Christopher Hampton, then only 23, followed up Total Eclipse (his play about Verlaine and Rimbaud) with The Philanthropist, an intellectually witty, emotionally acute tragi-comedy about a philology lecturer called Philip who, ensconced in a cushy, cocooned university in the Oxbridge mould, becomes a social outcast, of sorts, by virtue of his virtue.
Philip sits in antithetical relation to his permissive age, strait-laced despite the Swinging Sixties, eager to placate rather than speak in the blunt fashion of the time, and consequently, although the opposite of confrontational, uniquely capable of putting everyone’s backs up. His most quotably circumspect line: “My trouble is, I’m a man of no convictions – at least I think I am.”
Hampton was turning Molière’s The Misanthrope – a misfit on account of his inveterate contempt for others – on its head, achieving a theatrical trick that reveals a truth; an evening that begins like a joke and winds up leaving you sick to the stomach.
Given that we’ve seen two duddy West End takes on Molière of late – The Miser and Don Juan in Soho – you could say that this cool, crisp, English appropriation, rendered with a keen eye for period dress-sense and ciggie-smoking by director Simon Callow (yes, The Simon Callow) is a case of third time lucky.
Callow has certainly struck gold with leading man Simon Bird, who first winged to fame on the back of nerdish, gauche, bright-spark Will in the teen sitcom The Inbetweeners. Bird has a tough act to follow – the last incumbent in this role, in 2005 at the Donmar, was the peerless Simon Russell Beale – but he delivers the goods by subtle incremental means, the thespian equivalent of a 3D printer.
More hamster than Hamlet, Bird’s emotionally illiterate wordsmith – sexless lover of sterile anagrams – begins as a figure of fun. He’s preyed upon hilariously by a ravishing party-guest at his book-lined rooms (flame-haired model Lily Cole’s Amazonian Araminta), but not only does he bungle this overture (sighing and trudging mournfully off to the bedroom as if to his execution) he also botches the ensuing row and his relationship with his once forgiving, now exasperated fiancée Celia (Charlotte Ritchie, a regular on Call the Midwife, here a revelation). In the haunting closing scenes, we realise that this inverse Don Juan has ended up, through beta-male inertia and ineptitude, in a hell of solitude.
With so much TV talent that’s fresh to the stage on display here, the standard charge that the small-screen begets small voices sticks somewhat. Things take their time to settle into a ringingly articulate groove, not helped by a disconcerting early scene that flags male suicide as a theme then presents an eerily topical reference to a lone terrorist attack on the Houses of Parliament.
Geeky Tom Rosenthal’s insouciant Eng-Lit don Donald only gradually gets into the off-hand swing of things while even Matt Berry (of The IT Crowd and much else) playing viler-than-thou novelist Braham Head (a dandified cross between Oscar Wilde and Katie Hopkins avant la lettre) could usefully apply more of his bellowing heft.
Still, overall the production works like a bleakly amusing charm and, for those who’ve not seen the play before, it’s a treat – nay, steep ticket-prices aside, philanthropic gift.
Until July 22. Tickets: 0844 871 7615; atgtickets.com