Writer: Patricia Highsmith
Adapted and Directed by: Mark Leipacher
In their programme for The Talented Mr Ripley, production company The Faction proudly proclaims that their work “combines a fresh look at the text with dynamic ensemble physicality”. And after watching this adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, that statement is difficult to argue with. When going to see a stage version of a 1955 thriller novel, one doesn’t quite expect what one is presented with here – a stripped down, rapid fire piece involving near-balletic movement and that is almost akin at times to experimental theatre. It’s probably impossible to describe this production in just words: suffice to say that it is visceral, physical and memorable.
The story centres around the eponymous anti-hero, a small time conman who strikes gold thanks to a chance encounter in a New York bar that sends him on an all-expenses trip to Italy to attempt to persuade playboy Dickie Greenleaf to return to the States. Tom Ripley soon finds that the life of the idle rich suits him and following an impulsive action on a boat, things spiral out of control very quickly with Ripley attempting to stay one step ahead of everyone else while maintaining the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed.
The most interesting and impressive aspect of this production is that Ripley is not just the centre of the story, he is the show. Rarely if ever off stage, Christopher Hughes works exceptionally hard as Tom Ripley. The character is a chameleon-like trickster motivated by self-hatred, fear and boredom as much as by greed, and this is fantastically portrayed both in the talented Mr Hughes’ performance and in the writing and direction of the piece which places the audience right in the middle of the man’s fractured psyche. Swapping accents and physical mannerisms, quickly swinging from calm and collected to hysterical and panic-stricken, gracefully moving when required and completely engaging with the audience despite playing a reprehensible character, Hughes should be applauded and awarded for this grandstanding, show-stopping, gob-smacking performance. Hughes deserves to be on a very fast trajectory to greatness and is definitely one to watch.
The rest of the cast are rather overshadowed by this large performance but not too much as to not be noticed and to impress. Christopher York plays the arrogant Dickie and does so perfectly. The young playboy is as odious as Ripley but for different reasons and as the story progresses the two begin melding into one character, with York easily matching Hughes, the pair blending their performances with amazing dexterity. Sophie Spreadbury plays the rather thankless role of Marge, the woman pushed to the side lines of Dickie and Tom’s homoerotic relationship, and Marcello Walton plays both Dickie’s desperate father and the policeman who begins to hound Tom. Both are very good: Spreadbury’s performance pitch perfect, and Walton being reminiscent of a compact version of Willem Dafoe. The small cast is rounded out by Andre Bullock, Emma Jay Thomas and Lachlan McCall as various smaller characters, although the entire ensemble also often acts as a single unit with tightly choreographed movement and background mime. The whole cast also impressively interact with Holly Pigott’s deceptively simple multipurpose set, disappearing under the main stage area and literally popping up at unexpected moments.
Chris Withers’ lighting design is tight and muted, with bursts of bright light to punctuate certain moments. Max Pappenheim’s subtle sound design is exceptionally impressive by being at times almost inaudible but always pertinent, and Mark Leipacher’s direction is vital, interesting and enveloping.
This production is of the highest calibre, but one is left wondering whether the material is a good fit for such a staging. Leipacher’s adaptation is impressive and the story is absorbing and told clearly, but there is a nagging doubt as to whether Highsmith’s page-turner is really worthy of such a dramatic and contemporary interpretation. In his programme notes, Leipacher describes Tom Ripley as Shakespearean or like something from a Greek tragedy, and although this may be the case on a minor level, he has perhaps made a mistake in treating the story with comparable reverence in this production. More than anything, this production leaves one yearning to see what this collection of talent could do with source material that has a little more meat on its bones.
Runs until 7th March 2020