Leopards at the Rose Theatre, Kingston – review
Alys Metcalf's new thriller is directed by Christopher Haydon
In a global village that often seems like such a difficult, dark place right now, and at a time when mental health issues are so openly (and welcomely) explored and discussed, the thriller genre – which frequently turns on irrational acts of unimaginable cruelty perpetrated by one human upon another – feels particularly challenging to pull off. Credit is due then to Alys Metcalf for attempting a new addition to the canon while stuffing it to the gills with so many worthy issues, from climate change, to good versus evil and much in between, that it feels very much a play for 2021.
It's also a challenging one to talk about without spoilers as it turns on a couple of major revelations, the surprise level of which may depend upon your sleuthing abilities. If one of them is perhaps a little predictable (some of Metcalf's early clues are less than subtle) the sheer craft on display in the production means that the journey is still worth taking, even if the whole premise falls apart somewhat when considered retrospectively.
Leopards gets off to a cracking start with feted charity sector power player Ben (Martin Marquez) meeting glamorous, much younger Niala (Saffron Coomber) in an upmarket hotel bar for drinks and to dispense career advice. The vague implausibility of the set-up (he seems a bit too good to be true, she is almost alarmingly confident, and why doesn't she have any ready-made questions to ask him…?) is glossed over by the expertise and energy of the performances and the superbly judged pace of Christopher Haydon's staging. The writing predominantly matches the acting at first – sharp, humorous, ambiguous – but then gets bogged down in a mire of lofty intentions.
This play has major things on its mind – power abuse, gender roles, race, entrapment, personal responsibility, familial guilt, female kinship – but most of them are referred to only fleetingly before we're on to the next hot button topic, so their inclusion starts to feel more like box ticking than any attempt at serious consideration.
Most of these issues are filtered through the female character, who in less skilled hands than Coomber's would be in danger of seeming little more than a mouthpiece. As it is, she is so magnetic, subtly quirky, and finally emotionally raw, that Niala is a source of considerable fascination. Marquez is equally good, suggesting a ruthlessness beneath the benign exterior. There is an authentic but uneasy chemistry between the two actors that is consistently exciting to watch even as the script they're delivering drives them in ever more melodramatic and incredulous directions.
Having set up a stimulating dynamic, with some cracking dialogue, there follows a certain sense of anti-climax as Metcalf falls back on several standard thriller tropes while hurling so many ideas at the wall that there is no hope of them all sticking, especially in a 90-minute piece. There's a scorchingly relevant and powerful play embedded in here somewhere but it needs breathing space and streamlining to emerge.
From the terrific acting to Lily Arnold's convincingly soulless luxury hotel settings, and some satisfyingly unsettling light and sound effects (Colin Grenfell and Gareth Fry respectively), Haydon's production verges on technically flawless, yet proves unable to disguise the impression that Metcalf's script ultimately collapses under the weight of its own ambitions.