Full disclosure: I bought a ticket for an early preview, because press night was my husband’s birthday but I couldn’t resist checking out Christopher Hampton’s 1971 play. Not least because it is set in just the sort of donnish room that ‘60s university tutors used to inhabit, blissfully undisturbed by the outer world unless my peers were actually throwing bricks or chanting “Ho ho ho chi Minh” outside. Also Simon Callow directs, and his taste is always interesting.

So I won’t offer a star-rating, as there were six previews left and Mr Callow says it was work in progress. But it was fascinating: I hope younger audiences realize, amid the laughs, how accurately Hampton’s text catches the curious sterile élite manner of that academic cadre. Horribly funny still is their comic indifference to a larger world: barely acknowledging the murder of the entire Cabinet (creepy to have the Westminster terrorist attack just as it opened). Better still is the way he skewers the tricky epigrammatic showing-off of the dreadful star-writer Braham (Matt Berry). HE is the classic intolerable 1960s intellectual, going on about art being just like masturbation while admiring girls in long floaty frocks drape themselves at his feet. Hampton also catches the insouciant new sexual freedom brought on by the Pill: poor Philip the philologist, a man so agreeable he can’t teach Eng.Lit for fear of being critical, is the central character. Turning Moliere’s Le Misanthrope upside down, he is a man who can’t be abrasive: he’s a philologist because he just loves words, all of them! . He is in love with Celia (Charlotte Richie) but gets challenged to a bunk-up by the more voracious Araminta. The run-up to their unsatisfactory night occupies the first half; the aftermath the second.

It is in the second half that the play really begins to bite, though Callow’s cast keep it tripping along (especially Simon Bird, who is rather wonderful as the innocent Philip, indicating subtly how much of his almost inhuman niceness is fuelled by fear). Lily Cole as the vamptress Araminta, with a torrent of hair and endless white hypnotic thighs, is oddly touching: her anger when Philip admits he isn’t, er, actually attracted to her rings eerily true. “Needing to be needed” is a mark of the most voracious of our sex, or certainly was in the treacherous 1960s. Actually, the retro sexual politics depicted in this play is dynamite, when you think of it: Celia is also interesting, desiring a real man like awful Braham to overwhelm her and uninspired by decency and faithful affection. This is a ‘sixties woman, not yet happy in the new age which, thank God, was just beginning to dawn.


So as a period piece, it rang true; and Bird’s and Cole’s performances in particular left me convinced and rather sorrowful. It’s worth bringing back. And kids: if any of your tutors and peers behave like this, just remind them that they are being really, really old-fashioned. Neo-Victorian, almost.



box office to 22 July


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