It may come as a bit of a surprise to those who think I am a nervy and neurotic limp lettuce, but I know my murderers. George Joseph Smith (Brides in the Bath) and choirboy John George Haigh (Acid Bath) are old friends. As are H.H.Holmes, Peter Kurten, and Graham Young. Google them, all nice chaps. Read lots about all of them and with one, Mr Young the 1970’s Bovingdon poisoner, was in the court when he was in the witness box facing the attorney general. They killed for a variety of reasons, usually money or sex or a combination of the two, but all were driven by arrogance and a belief in their own personal power. Comes over in old books with Haigh and some others and, especially, in that St Albans court with Graham Young. For the only time in my life I was within twenty feet of a killer and it chilled the heart. Normal rules do not apply to such men. The talented Tom Ripley is very much of that ilk. He uses and discards people much as we ordinary folk would utilise our household objects. He lacks any empathy, whether for a hapless tax fraud victim or the concerned relatives of a friend he has killed. Cold eyed and callous, he sails through life haunted only by his dreams not by his deeds.
Give me an actor who can’t cut this particular mustard and you have a production that, whatever its strengths and weaknesses, ultimately fails. Phyllis Nagy’s The Talented Mr Ripley, an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel, stands or falls by its lead. You can have a good set. This one, multileveled and open with rolling backdrop clouds, fulfilled most requirements. You can have good and evocative sound. This had lapping waves and haunting music. And you can wrap the supporting players, two excellent, with moody lighting effects which stun. But you need your Mr Ripley. You need your convincing, charismatic, killer. Without him all else goes for naught. With him you have a play which draws and grips. This one had Justin Doherty and, for me, he never put a foot wrong. Cold eyed, quietly spoken, and with a stillness that unnerved he created a psychopathic realism rarely seen on the local stage. For over two and a half hours you genuinely felt you were in the presence of a killer. And I know, I have been.
None of this makes me blind to any faults in Alan Clarke’s production. I am a bit too long in the tooth to be totally seduced by one performance, however good it may be. Mr Clarke was up against it. His Still Life last year is the nearest thing to theatrical perfection this blog has seen. They didn’t bat as long in Ripley, stage lit interiors were less realistic than exteriors, and the second murder was bereft of dramatic tension and clumsy in its aftermath. We will all shuffle off this mortal coil but here a bloodstained actor (Marc Rolfe) gave it a quick and literal interpretation. And, final nitpick, a play rich in narrative mood and atmosphere veered perilously close to under pacing at times. It’s a clever play with lots of overlapping dialogue and scenes and, generally, Mr Clarke staged it well. But actors are buggers for picking up the rhythms and levels of others. And, theory here, that other was the mesmerising and bespectacled Ripley.
But enough of that. Actors don’t want to read this rubbish. They only want to know what you thought of them. Quite right too. Well Jenna Ryder-Oliver was excellent, I think I have said that somewhere, both as the dying mother of the first victim and the dotty aunt of his killer. She acts with verve and style and every inch of her variety of personalities, the mother had at least five, was laced with astute human observations. Super. As Herbert Greenleaf, father of the first victim, Malcolm Farrar has a much more restrained characterisation. It totally convinced throughout, particularly so in his moving final speech telling of his wife’s ultimate demise. This was done with an admirable economy of acting skills proving the old theatrical adage that less is often more. He couldn’t resist slightly showing off in his more flamboyant second portrayal, an Italian Colombo like detective, but even here he created a pleasing tension. You got the distinct feeling that his Lt Roverini, fingering a damning cigarette case, knew he was facing a killer but lacked the desire or energy to pursue it. La Dolce Vita has a lot to answer for. The other performances couldn’t match the three singled out but Miranda Larson looked every inch the scrumptious girlfriend Marge and, for good measure, also threw in a sultry prostitute. Luke Howard was engaging as the nervy cartoonist handing over cheques and James Trapp a nice clean cut victim. I reckon I would need to see this again to get a real handle on Mr Trapp’s characterisation of the doomed Richard Greenleaf as on this showing he seemed a little bland. Perhaps most murder victims are.
But, on balance, I found the production hugely entertaining. I like believable murderers and in Justin Doherty’s compelling portrayal we got it in spades. We also got oodles of filmic atmosphere thanks to a clever set, generally well used, and classy lighting (David Houghton) and even classier sound (Graham Elliott). All merged beautifully at the end when the still and menacing Tom Ripley listened to Aunt Dottie’s reprise of his personal nightmare. At that moment you saw the divide between those who kill and the rest of us ordinary folk. This production had both dramatic highs and lows but Mr Clarke must have been well pleased with that final picture. When the mood takes, Tom Ripley will kill again. Roy Hall