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A CurtainUp London Review
Simon Russell Beale plays Philip, the Oxford academic and lecturer in philology who lists his hobbies as working out unusual and intricate anagrams. Philip's personality is all kindness and his nature is sweet. He is the type of man that people, and more especially women, are going to take advantage of. He explains that he was unable to teach English literature because he likes everything, he is unable to criticise. Philip describes his job as combining "the boredom of the science faculties with the uselessness of the arts faculties".
The prelude to the play is so very clever and it must have marked out the young Christopher Hampton for notice. It reminded me of Stoppard's The Real Thing when everything isn't as it seems and the audience are strung along. Philip and Donald (Danny Webb) are in a tutorial with a student, John (Simon Bubb), discussing John's play which has a dramatic but unbelievable ending. The first act continues in Philip's rooms in college where his (undergraduate and much younger) fiancée Celia (Anna Madeley) is cooking dinner for six. First on the guest list is fellow don, and English lecturer, Donald, colleague and confidant of Philip. They are to be joined by a writer, Braham (ghastly, affected and pretentious) (Simon Day), Araminta (sexually promiscuous) (Siobhan Hewlett) and (as quiet as a mouse) Liz (Bernadette Russell). After a pairing off with lifts offered home, the six mix and meld. The next morning they reap the aftermath of the previous night's sexual activity or even inactivity.
The play was described by its author as a bourgeois comedy. Hampton's wit has not dated at all and the first act is very funny, full of social comedy and paradox and underlining the ridiculous in our behaviour.
Simon Russell Beale is most visually expressive and in the small space of the Donmar Warehouse we are treated to a close up of his full range of bug eyed consternation, puzzlement and quizzical reflection. When Araminta makes Philip the object of her lust, we know that the outcome will be a disaster. Araminta launches her unsubtle pass by giving Philip a meant-to-be erotic scalp massage. The effect is not to arouse him but only to muss up his hair, giving him a very curious bouffant appearance. Socially inept, he is unable to turn down the rampant Araminta but equally unable to put up any kind of a physical performance. I suppose some of Philip's awkward situations develop from his inability to condemn his fellow man. Anna Madeley is quite shrewish showing her dissatisfaction with her relationship. She and Philip seem very unsuited.
Donald expounds his theory dividing all mankind: either we live a lie or we live according to something which we believe to be the truth but is in fact a lie. Either way we are fooled but the difference is in whether we are fooling ourselves or others. The outcome for Philip is that despite his mild manners and kind nature he upsets as many people as the overly frank Alceste. The playwright intersperses more and more incredible events such as the assassination of the Prime Minister and his cabinet, but these fail to cause so much as a ripple in the academic mill pond.
The set is beautifully furnished -- aesthetically pleasing rooms, an opulent bergère chair, a padded leather sofa, an antique desk and bookcases and shelves high up, full of cream covered books. Each scene is introduced with the word of one of the seven deadly sins which I found superfluous. The costume rejects the full flared excesses of the 1970s but, again like an anagram, uses modern day clothes with a hint of those eclectic fashions.
David Grindley has assembled a faultless cast for this revival and it is a delight to see Simon Russell Beale's prodigious talent in close up. Hampton's clever play has many parallels with the Molière but it is as if he has muddled up the ideas and rearranged them, like an anagram so that they bear a similarity, are made up of the same elements but the result is different.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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