Exclusive: Westminster attack prompted playwright to consider rewriting comedy

The Oscar-winning writer of West End play The Philanthropist contemplated rewriting his 1970 comedy in the wake of last month’s Westminster attack.

Christopher Hampton was concerned the play’s references to a fictional attack on Parliament would be in poor taste.

He said: “I said to Simon Callow, quite seriously, maybe we should change it.”

Yet Callow, who directed the revival at London’s Trafalgar Studios, said it was “important” the play be staged as originally seen.

“Christopher was perfectly willing to tone it down,” said the actor and director after the play’s opening night on Thursday.

“But I think it’s very important there’s this big shock in the play, that the characters then completely dismiss.”

Set in Oxford in the early 1970s, The Philanthropist depicts a group of self-absorbed academics who have little interest in the wider world.

The play begins with news that a man armed with a machine-gun has killed the prime minister inside the House of Commons, along with a number of his front bench colleagues.

“The play is about how insulated and cocooned you can be in certain parts of life,” said Hampton, who won an Academy Award for writing 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons.

“Therefore, I wanted to have bizarre things going on in the outside world.”

Simon Bird, who plays lead character Philip, said it had been “shocking and jarring” for a real-life attack to occur “just down the road” from the play’s West End home.

“The content of the play is bizarrely topical,” said the star of Channel 4 sitcoms The Inbetweeners and Friday Night Dinner.

“It takes place in the backdrop of terrorist attacks and political turmoil, which makes it feel like it was written yesterday.”

Four pedestrians were killed last month after Khalid Masood drove his car along the pavement on Westminster Bridge.

He then entered the grounds of the Palace of Westminster and fatally stabbed a police officer before being shot dead.

Pop star Nicki Minaj faced criticism on social media this week for including shots of Westminster Bridge and the Palace of Westminster in the video for her song No Frauds.

The Trafalgar Studios, formerly known as the Whitehall Theatre, are located a short distance away from where the events of 22 March took place.

Last seen in London in 2005, The Philanthropist has traditionally been staged with actors considerably older than the characters they are playing.

The late Alec McCowen played Philip in the original Royal Court production, while Matthew Broderick took the role when it was revived on Broadway in 2009.

Younger cast are ‘the correct age’

“The characters are between 25 and 33, yet in the past they’ve always cast very skilled actors in their 40s,” said Hampton.

“This production is different because the cast are the correct age. In a curious way, it feels much more like the play I wrote.”

Bird’s co-stars include Matt Berry from Channel 4’s Toast of London, model turned actress Lily Cole and Call the Midwife cast member Charlotte Ritchie.

It was recently revealed that Call the Midwife is to have its first regular black character – a West Indian nurse whom Ritchie predicted would be “a very good addition to the cast.”

The Philanthropist runs at the Trafalgar Studios until 22 July.


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