The Philanthropist, Donmar Warehouse, London

A master of donnish drama
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The Independent Culture

As the title suggests, this early work is a clever, witty inversion of Molière's great comedy The Misanthrope. For the hypocritical hothouse of Louis XIV's court, we have the backbiting, bitchy milieu of modern academe. Its insularity is satirically underlined by the political backdrop: the assassinations of the Prime Minister and the majority of the Cabinet are, ludicrously, not enough to wrest the attention of the dons from their own concerns. Rather than telegrams and anger, this is world of jokey anagrams and futility.

Hampton's master stroke is to put at the heart of the play a reverse-image of Molière's Alceste, the man who takes scathing hatred to worrying extremes. In his place, we have Russell Beale's Philip, a bachelor don who anxiously likes everyone and who was drawn to philology because he's incapable of the critical judgements needed to teach literature.

Pitch-perfect in terms of period feel, Grindley's production can't disguise the fact that the piece operates on different levels of achievement. The retreat from radicalism to moneyed bourgeois complacency is caricatured with heavy-handedness in the velvet-suited, strenuously "shocking" figure of Braham (Simon Day), an author who has been forced to abandon the left wing for tax reasons. Philip's engagement to the spoilt, beautiful, malicious young graduate Celia (a spot-on performance from Anna Madeley) only starts to feel genuine when it begins to unravel horribly.

One of the play's key insights is that its hero's compulsive desire to please people is a strategy for coping with his terror of them - and, hence, is as potentially isolating as the indiscriminate contempt evinced by Alceste. Russell Beale's performance brings that paradox to deeply affecting life.

Playing a dumpy, chronically apologetic and indecisive don ("My trouble is, I'm a man of no conviction. At least I think I am"), he's hilarious at the farcical aspects of Philip's plight. Unable to hurt the feelings of a nubile sexpot, he succumbs to her seduction, and I'll never forget his facial expression, a potty blend of the flattered and the panic-stricken, when she musses his hair into an impromptu Rod Stewart look.

As the plays darkens, however, it draws on this actor's supreme talent for playing characters who, though in many ways absurd, attain a quiet dignity as they face up to humiliating truths about themselves. We see this here in the fantastically unassuming emotional nakedness with which his Philip confesses to, and projects, the terrible loneliness of a don who has belatedly realised that if liking people is half the battle, this was, in his case, "the wrong half".

There is a piercing moment when he listens to an offstage football match and his eyes show the pain of the eternally excluded. "Full time," he declares with a little twist of irony lost on Celia, who does not relate the phrase to his hauntingly bleak inventory of "a full life but an empty one".

The opening and close play a blackly comic trick on the audience. In the one, a mock suicide is overtaken by grotesque reality and in the other a genuine impulse to suicide is defused in the bathos of an anticlimactic sight gag. These quasi-Pirandellian bookends are very neat, but I wonder if they entirely escape the idea voiced elsewhere in the piece that "trying to make elegant patterns out of people's hopelessness" is bad form.

To 15 October (0870 060 6624)