Patricia Highsmith is perhaps best known for writing Strangers on a Train, which was immortalised on celluloid by Alfred Hitchcock, but later generations may be more familiar with her most famous character Tom Ripley, after the first of her five novels to feature him was made in to a movie starring Matt Damon. Highsmith is the subject of Joanna Murray Smith’s Switzerland which played at Theatre Royal Bath earlier this year, and makes a last-minute transfer to London when the Ambassador’s Theatre found itself with an unexpected gap in programming.
The title is easy to explain; Highsmith is in self-imposed exile in the Swiss Alps, we discover she is ill and while the mountain air is probably beneficial, we’re led to believe her reasons for being there run deeper. By all accounts she wasn’t the nicest of people to be around and that may have something to do with her desire for isolation, but it’s the introduction of a second character which sets the slightly more complex plot in motion.
Mild mannered Edward Ridgeway arrives (late) via Paris Gare de Nord, bringing with him, amongst other things a supply of Campbell’s soup, a specialist knife and a contract for Highsmith to sign, he’s been sent by her publisher to convince her to pen the final Ridley novel. He’s not the first to be dispatched, and it appears his predecessor didn’t come out of the meeting well, but Edward takes a different approach, only for us to discover he’s not entirely who he seems.
Downtown Abbey favourite Phyllis Logan plays the reclusive novelist with surety, employing all the caustic insults and quick wit you would expect from the character. With bedraggled hair and an unwashed shirt, she chain-smokes through the entire performance making the tense environment even more hazy. Calum Finlay gives a fantastic performance as Edward, it becomes fascinating to watch him transform as each scene comes around. His timid and anxious Edward in the first act a far cry from his manipulative alter ego in the final.
Director Lucy Bailey keeps the pace feeling taut, this is a psychological drama where you are kept wondering which character will break first, unleashing an avalanche of agony on the other. William Dudley’s design sees the idea of a Swiss Cabin given a dark twist, as near-black wallpaper and gauche statues contrast with the almost picture postcard vistas brightly in view through the over-sized windows.
In Switzerland the character of Tom Ripley is examined as an extension of Highsmith herself, the line between all three characters balancing on a knife edge, as the audience is drawn ever deeper down the rabbit hole of Joanna Murray Smith’s intense writing.