Ambassadors Theatre, London – until 6 December 2018
Those who call Theresa May a ‘bloody difficult woman’ should pop into the Ambassadors and realise that in the ranks of BDWs she is the merest dabbler, a tyro. Patricia Highsmith, author of Strangers on a Train and the Talented Mr Ripley series, was in real life described by one publisher as “a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being” and by another who actually liked her best as “rough, very difficult”.
In Joanna Murray Smith’s creepy, funny, transgressive, impertinent tour-de-force of a 90 minute two-hander about her, Highsmith lives up to all of this. Especially in the first half as she comprehensively monsters a visiting young publisher who – after the previous envoy has returned needing trauma counselling – has volunteered as a fan of her Ripleys to plead with her to contact for a final one. She is probably terminally ill, and in retirement in Switzerland with her cat, pet snails and an extreme chip on the shoulder about the “circus of literary braggadocios”, the alpha males in US literature – Mailer, Vonnegut, Woolf etc. She feels that they and their critical sycophants look down on her for writing mere crime.
It is directed with vigour by Lucy Bailey, never one to shrink from the dark side. Phyllis Logan is superb as Highsmith: tough, hunched, writerly, aggressive and scornful. Calum Finlay is the young man – perfectly preppy, with his backpack and earnestness. At first, anyway.
It is often very funny, and secretly satisfying to this old boot to see a mean, scruffy old female warrior running rings around the apparently naive young man with his irritating young confidence. As it goes on the tone changes: a rapport grows up, but a prickly one, and the play becomes a meditation on two things (apart from the sheer fascination with murder).
One is the degree to which a public personality becomes imprisoned by their shtick -in her case antisocial, antisemitic, outrageous racism and general contempt. The other is the dangerous symbiosis between a beloved character and his creator. The barely spoken fact, which is also important to know if you are not a Ripley reader, is that after the utter brilliance of the first book about the serial killer, The Talented Mr Ripley, the series became less and less good. One tires of him. One point of this play is to suggest that she didn’t:that the amoral, existential character skewed her perspective and undermined her talent.
We move into a zone of illusion and fiction, no spoilers but that isn’t what transpired, ever. The young visitor undergoes a gradual change- which Finlay handles perfectly. Highsmith doesn’t, but remains her sharp sad ultimately vulnerable self below the carapace . Until…well…
It was a suddenly wet London evening, the kind when you end up in desperation shoving an Evening Standard under your soaked top for sheer insulation. And somehow, in this creepy play, that clamminess sort of helped. Rather brilliant.
Ambassadorstheatre.co.uk. To 6 Dec