Mark Ludmon reviews Joanna Murray-Smith’s play Switzerland now playing at the Ambassadors Theatre London.
According to playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, her research into Patricia Highsmith revealed her to be “deeply unlikeable, nasty, mean, cruel and narcissistic”. Much of this misanthropy including her racism and anti-semitism makes it into Murray-Smith’s portrait of the great crime writer in her play, Switzerland, but we are presented with a marginally more likeable figure in a strong performance by Phyllis Logan.
It finds Highsmith hiding away in her home in the Swiss Alps in 1995, shortly before her death, with only her cats and pet snails for company. She is expecting a visit from a young new editor, Edward Ridgeway, from her New York publishing house which is badgering her to write a sixth book about her most famous character, Tom Ripley. Once he arrives, a psychological game ensues where it soon emerges that all is not what it seems.
However, Logan’s skills cannot save this dry, often sluggish drama, directed by Lucy Bailey, where any tension is lost by the twists being heavily signalled in advance. It explores the interesting question of what led Highsmith to create such an appealing anti-hero, provoking us to root for the murderer throughout the five books from The Talented Mr Ripley onwards. Like Switzerland itself, the play suggests she revelled in this moral neutrality but the drama fails to dig deep into this fascination with evil and the traumas that may have contributed to it.
Calum Finlay does his best as the handsome stranger but his character is little more than a cipher in this emotionless piece. Murray-Smith scored a hit with her 2006 comedy about feminist writers, The Female of the Species, but this play – transferred from the Ustinov Studio in Bath – is a disappointing study of a real-life writer and her art, revealing little about a woman whose dark talents transformed the status of 20th-century crime fiction.
Running to 5 January 2019.