It’s a little like the title character – more shadow than substance. Bob Carlton’s new production of the Patricia Highsmith novel The Talented Mr Ripley in the 1998 adaptation by Phyllis Nagy has an impressive set by Claire Lyth and committed performances by the seven-strong cast but doesn’t really work. For me, at any rate.
The title character is the archetypical anti-hero. We tend to like such villainous creations on stage, especially when they are of the battling underdog sort (Shakespeare’s Richard III is the obvious example “sent into this world half made up”), but they do need to take the audience into their confidence, to get them on side as it were. Marcus Webb grows into the part of Tom Ripley as he back-stabs and bashes his way to a fortune but he’s never plausibly likeable.
As anyone familiar with Highsmith’s original, the book’s sequels and the various film versions will know, Ripley is commissioned by the wealthy New York Greenleaf couple to retrieve their son from an over-long sojourn in Italy. But Richard has no intention of returning to sit at a desk and manage his father’s business; he prefers to dabble with watercolours and share his life with Marge. Tom edges into this relationship, fractures it and then pursues his own agenda.
At first you wonder how Webb will ever credibly transform himself into a simulacrum of Elliot Harper’s Richard. By the second half, as they literally mirror-image each other, you wonder why the thought ever crossed your mind. Harper is particularly good as conveying the essential shallowness of Richard’s relationships and this contrasts well with the down-to-earth approach of Francesca Loren’s Marge. Simon Jessup is both the Greenleaf patriarch and the ever-so-slightly sceptical Italian police officer.
There’s pathos as well as temper in Karen Mann’s Emily Greenleaf and Ripley’s strident Aunt Dottie, for whom abroad is a wasteland full of bad plumbing and worse food. Sam Kordbacheh enjoys himself as the Italian boys for whom foreigners comprise a living – and we do too. Sam Pay completes the cast as Tom’s almost-nemesis. “People don’t change, they just get worse’ is a line which sums up Ripley’s progress. It’s just a pity that we, the audience, seem trapped on the outside looking in. It might be more dangerous, but being allowed to reach into the other would have given this production an edge which it somehow lacks.