Hot on the heels of her Emmy nomination for best actress for her portrayal of Princess Diana in The Crown, Emma Corrin is treading the boards in a new play inspired by the life of a high-class con woman. It's her West End debut – and her co-star Nabhaan Rizwan, the playwright Joseph Charlton, the director Daniel Raggett and design team member Mikaela Liakata are all also taking their first West End bows. It feels like a breath of fresh air: they're an impressively talented bunch.
The play, presented as part of Sonia Friedman's Re:Emerge season, has its origins in the extraordinary life of Anna Sorokin, a woman who lied her way to the top of New York society, pretending to be a wealthy German heiress. Here she is transformed into an influencer and curator of the contemporary art scene, a woman with thousands of Instagram followers, who is supposedly the super-rich daughter of a Russian oil family.
In a brilliant opening scene, she meets quiet tech millionaire Ariel (Rizwan) at a nightclub. As they dance, their shouted and inaudible dialogue flashes up on a wall behind them. Ariel, creator of an exclusive dating app, is immediately smitten by this mysterious, beautiful blonde, who exudes confidence and style.
From there the story unfolds backwards and forwards, partly narrated by the couple directly addressing the audience and partially enacted in scenes between them, and other characters who they also play. If the trajectory of the story is predictable, then the telling and the performances are not.
The set and video design are just sensational, a rich tapestry of every changing images that conjure New York life, from its parks, to its offices with a strategically placed Jeff Koons, to the smoking rooms of nightclubs with the city sparkling behind. The effects are magical: at one moment, as Anna remembers her time in London, she seems to be stepping out of a smudgy black and white painting, her outline shown in bleeding red. In another, a scene is played in front of a postcard of the Golden Gate, a boat sailing serenely beneath. The whole thing is wonderfully lit by Jessica Hung Han Yun.
In this simple but sophisticated frame, Radlett makes the action charge forward with the same pulse as the frenetic life Anna is leading. He's good at contrasts, between high energy and moments of quiet and it's in the scenes where the characters interact that the play comes most vividly to life.
Corrin and Rizwan are both appealing presences; she has just the right amount of charm to make it believable that he would fall so hard and believe for so long; he has an innocence that makes the deception possible. Their performances are full of nuance: the way her eyes narrow when he makes romantic suggestions; his spaced-out goofiness when they first talk. They slip into other characters effortlessly too, holding attention keeping the play moving.
It's harder for them to maintain this subtlety in the long passages where monologue takes over; if the play has a fault, it's that there's too much exposition and not enough interaction. But Charlton's writing is full of memorable phrases – Ariel is "a moth to the flame" of Anna's unkindness; Instagram is a way of painting lives online; a certain type of girl survives "on tapas and cocaine." He's good too at letting bigger themes push through the narrative: the danger of a world where everything seems real and nothing is checked, where everything is a concept that you can buy into or reject, where the American dream becomes so corrupted that entrepreneurship and fraud are separated by a barrier as thin as paper.
It's a savage indictment of the way society has lost all sense of value, delivered with considerable style, panache and even humour. Definitely talents to watch.