It has all the trappings of a conventional thriller, yet is nothing but. I am, of course, referring to Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith's two-hander Switzerland (Ambassadors Theatre), directed by Lucy Bailey.
The year is 1995, the place is a reclusive chalet in the depths of the Swiss Alps. Patricia Highsmith iconic crime novelist and renowned misanthrope, now ageing and ailing, hides away in her study, surrounded by her collection of books and antique weaponry, finding solace in her seclusion, her cats and cigarettes. Vitriolic, bigoted and alcoholic, her eccentricities are the stuff of legend. A young man, Edward Ridgeway, turns up, sent by her New York publisher, to persuade her to pen one final instalment of her best-selling thriller series featuring the master manipulator, Tom Ripley. There follows a cat and mouse struggle and Ridgeway begins to exert more pull. As day breaks over the mountains it becomes clear that the charming stranger is not what he seems and is in fact set on a far more sinister mission.
What starts as a dark comedy, filled with razor-sharp dialogue, unexpectedly morphs into a chilling thriller and we get to feel like we may be accessories to murder – a gleaming, precious knife is introduced in the first act and comes into play by the fourth. This is a play which teases us with humour, foreshadowing an ominous, impending doom.
Murray-Smith has great fun emulating Highsmith's terse, comic register, as she tears the young man to shreds. But the main problem with this rather laborious play is that we can't empathise with either of the two protagonists as they appear unappealing, so one doesn't care about their fate.
I was quite shocked when I first encountered Phyllis Logan beloved by millions as the kindly and unflappable housekeeper, Mrs Hughes in Downton Abbey, here almost unrecognisable as the irascible Highsmith, a woman who oozed nastiness from every pore and whom a former lover described as 'cruel, lonely and ugly.' It is an excellent performance and shows Logan's versatility as an actress. Callum Finlay as Ridgeway convincingly metamorphoses as the mood takes him from nervous intern to dark charmer, as Ripley seems to come alive in front of our eyes.
In the end one is left contemplating how much of this twisting tale could fit into one of Highsmith's own novel and who will step into the role of murderer and who will end up as the victim?
Runs until Saturday 5 January 2019 at the Ambassadors Theatre, London.
Box office: 020 7395 5405
Photography: ©Nobby ClarkeLast modified: April 6, 2021