The Philanthropist cast talk working with Simon Callow, London elites and being typecast

Simon Bird, Charlotte Ritchie, Matt Berry, Tom Rosenthal and Lily Cole. Picture: Shaun Webb

Simon Bird, Charlotte Ritchie, Matt Berry, Tom Rosenthal and Lily Cole. Picture: Shaun Webb - Credit: Archant

Simon Callow, Matt Berry, Simon Bird, Tom Rosenthal, Charlotte Ritchie and Lily Cole talk to Zoe Paskett about working on the 70s comedy classic at Trafalgar Studios

Christopher Hampton was 23 years old when he wrote The Philanthropist, and it wasn’t even his first play. Set on the backdrop of a fictitious university town, reminiscent of Hampton’s Oxford, this “bourgeois comedy” follows the interaction of six academics, their relationships and self doubts.

Islington’s Simon Callow saw the play when it premiered in 1970, but didn’t consider that he would be directing it decades later.

“I wasn’t an actor when I went to see it,” he says, “but when I did start acting in ’73 it was going round in the reps quite a lot so it might actually have turned up.”

An inversion of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, in which the protagonist alienates his peers through his unpleasantness, the lead, Philip, does much the same through his utter desperation to please everyone around him.

The cast is made up of some of the UK’s best loved comic actors playing, for the first time since it was first produced, their roles at the age they were written.

“It was an inspiration of the producer, Howard Panter, to get a group of actors who had a reputation in comedy but bring together a whole generational feeling about comedy now and lock that into the play,” says Callow. “That’s what we’ve done and I think it’s paying fantastic dividends.”

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The Inbetweeners’ Simon Bird (also an Islington resident) takes on the role of philologist and lover of anagrams Philip, with his fiancé played by Charlotte Ritchie (Call the Midwife, Fresh Meat). Bird’s co-star from Friday Night Dinner, stand up comedian Tom Rosenthal (yet another local), plays Donald; Matt Berry (The Mighty Boosh, Toast of London, The IT Crowd) plays pompous writer Braham; Lily Cole (St Trinian’s, Ab Fab: The Movie) plays the seductive Araminta.

“The raw material is fantastic,” says Berry, “and then on top of that to be working with Simon and to be working with the great comic actors he has chosen to fill out the other parts – it’s all thumbs up.”

The feeling of excitement at being directed by someone as experienced as Callow – he has directed more than 30 shows – is clear throughout the cast.

“There’s something really satisfying about taking notes from someone who you really trust,” says Ritchie. “But he’s managed not to be intimidating despite his great experience. He gave me a note related to Chekhov on our first day and I said ‘I have no idea what that means’ and he didn’t mind – well, he was really good at covering the fact that he minded.”

Rosenthal agrees: “He’s quite a rare commodity in that he’s very gracious. He doesn’t really make you feel sh*t, even though he could definitely do it much better than you could!”

While Callow has never acted in this play himself, he admits he rather fancies the role of Philip, though in his youth he’d more likely have played Braham.

“I think I would have felt I could do Braham quite easily, arrogantly enough at that age,” he laughs. “But actually Philip is a fascinating part.”

“He’s very anxious,” says Bird. “He can’t really keep up with the cynical wit and jokey repartee of the other characters and for that reason he’s a bit out on a limb.”

Philip’s fiancée Celia is the opposite – a “social butterfly,” says Bird, “whereas my character is a social…” “crab?” offers Ritchie.

Ritchie’s role as student Oregon in Fresh Meat might have given her a boost in preparing for the role: they both study English, they’re both young women who “don’t quite know who they are”…

“And they’re both sleeping with their tutors,” says Bird.

She gasps: “Oh my god, I’ve been typecast.”

Hampton set his play surrounded by the demonstrations of the late 60s and early 70s, noticing during his time at Oxford its detachment from the rest of the world. There are certain similarities with exploring the play in 2017 London.

“I think it’s more the liberal elite that we’re a part of,” says Rosenthal. “Living in a high society feels pretty relevant just in terms of people who go to the theatre – theatre goers are in the top one per cent generally financially.”

The characters may experience some level of elite isolation in their position as academics, but Callow eschews the description by some that they’re out of touch.

“I’ve so come to detest the phrase ‘out of touch’,” says Callow. “It’s sort of parroted away by people whenever they don’t agree with what someone says – they’re perfectly well in touch, they just have a different opinion to you.

“What they’re dealing with is what everyone deals with: relationships, heartbreak, commitment, non-commitment, all of the usual hopes and dreams that we all entertain. It’s a very intelligent and witty experience, but without being in any way daunting. It’s not full of classical allusions, it’s just very funny. You’d come out of the theatre thinking you’ve had a rather good champagne.”

Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist, directed by Simon Callow, is at The Trafalgar Studios, April 3 – July 22. Tickets: