“Elegant, witty, sophisticated, remarkable”: The ‘Philanthropist’

Katie Sayer and Emily Lawford meet the all-star cast of Simon Callow's production of 'The Philanthropist'

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Photo credit: @ThePhilanthropistPlay (Facebook page)

Two very nervous teenagers, your Cherwell stage eds were feeling rather out of their depth when the opportunity to interview the cast of The Philanthropist popped up in our inbox. Directed by award-winning Simon Callow (CBE) and boasting an all-star cast including the likes of Lily Cole, Simon Bird, Matt Berry, Charlotte Ritchie and Tom Rosenthal, it was hard not to feel apprehensive when we arrived in central London for the interview of a lifetime. Fortunately for our nerves, the cast could not have been lovelier.

“This is your first interview? How are you feeling?” grins Tom Rosenthal, straddling a chair and explaining “they’re really bad for your back, these red things!”

His infectious enthusiasm is symptomatic of the energy shared by the entire cast. They all seem genuinely excited by the play and are eager to share that passion. Simon Callow speaks uninterrupted for almost half our time slot when asked what it was about The Philanthropist that first attracted him.

“I absolutely love Christopher (Hampton)’s tone as a writer: it’s elegant, it’s witty, it’s sophisticated, it’s remarkable,” he enthuses, providing at least another ten complimentary adjectives, and Lily Cole agrees: “it’s brilliantly written, witty and at the same time incredibly political and philosophical”. For Matt Berry the attraction was more simple: “because Simon was directing”.

Indeed, the sense of camaraderie between cast members is striking. Charlotte Ritchie and Simon Bird in particular have a steady repartee that makes the interview feel more like a cosy chat, and it is clear that the wit and raillery that distinguish the play are equally prevalent off stage.

As Callow rightly says, the cast is “particularly brilliant in comic work, a great ensemble,” and with so many comedy stars assembled there is one obvious question to ask—who is the funniest in real life? “We could just choose each other,” Charlotte Ritchie says to Simon Bird, to which he replies, “we could, but I’m trying to be honest”.

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“Simon [Callow]. He’s in charge,” says Tom Rosenthal, and then adds, “He’s like a book! He’s just got all these Oscar Wilde quotations in his head.”

“I can’t choose anyone” Charlotte Ritchie begins—“because none of us make you laugh,” Simon Bird finishes.

Most of our generation will recognise the cast from their forays into television comedy, from The Inbetweeners (Simon Bird) and Fresh Meat (Charlotte Ritchie) to Plebs (Tom Rosenthal). Is it wildly different acting on stage than on television?

“For me they are utterly, utterly different media” says Simon Callow. “In the theatre, you always have to project it out to your audience, whatever the size, whereas in film the camera overhears you, it’s an interested bystander who watches your performance”.

For Matt Berry, acting in sit-coms acts as a happy halfway house between the two. “Your performance is tailored around the laughs” he says, “but the biggest difference is this (play) is sort of like jumping out of a plane – once you’re out that’s it”.

Another thing that is perhaps notable is how young the cast is. The Philanthropist is set at an Oxbridge-type university, but this production marks the first time that the characters have been played by actors of the age that Hampton intended. Has The Philanthropist brought back memories of student life?

“You’re at Oxford?” Lily Cole asks. “I went to Cambridge, which I imagine isn’t wildly dissimilar, and you get these very politically conscious, bordering on self-righteous groups, and this is a play about those kind of people”.

Simon Bird, who also went to Cambridge, agrees that “I guess there were sort of fusty old professors who were quite similar to some of the characters in this,” to which Charlotte Ritchie adds that “when I was at uni we normally socialised out in a bar, it would be like dancing, it wouldn’t be sitting and having a kind of intellectual conversation… I always imagined Oxford would be like that?” We assure her it is definitely not.

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Is there any advice they would give to their 18-year-old selves? “Don’t go to uni!” Charlotte Ritchie and Lily Cole both say immediately, before adding, although less convincingly, “it’s a joke. It’s definitely a joke. Just enjoy it”.

“Put yourself out there,” Simon Bird proffers, and Lily Cole agrees that “anything is possible”. Tom Rosenthal’s advice is perhaps more topical: “put on a production of The Philanthropist”.

The natural chemistry between the cast members and the energy and enthusiasm they all share certainly bodes well for the production, which is set to be a sell-out show. Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist, directed by Simon Callow, is at The Trafalgar Studios from 3rd April to 22nd July. Tickets: www.atgtickets.com/the-philanthropist .

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