‘Rather brilliant’: SWITZERLAND – West End ★★★★

In London theatre, Opinion, Plays, Reviews, Ticket recommendations by Libby PurvesLeave a Comment

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

Rating four.

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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