Review: Switzerland (Bath Theatre Royal)

Joanna Murray-Smith’s play looks at iconic crime writer Patricia Highsmith

Phyllis Logan in Switzerland
Phyllis Logan in Switzerland
© Nobby Clark

The author Patricia Highsmith found success early with the publication of Strangers On A Train in 1951, which was quickly turned into a film the next year by the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. This early triumph allowed her to create a body of work that would, at its peak, stand on the same pantheon as that other grande dame of crime fiction Agatha Christie. It was her five-book series following the adventures of charming con-man slash serial killer Tom Ripley that she will be best remembered. A renowned misanthrope, a former lover described her as 'cruel, lonely and ugly', it was remarked that if she hadn't created the character of Ripley to commit unspeakable acts upon the page she would have likely committed these crimes herself. It's not surprising, therefore, that Joanna Murray-Smith has found her fertile inspiration for this play, receiving its UK premiere here.

On the face of it, Murray-Smith's Switzerland has all the trappings of a conventional thriller. Young publishing executive Edward Ridgeway (Calum Finlay) visits the ageing author in her reclusive chalet in the depths of the Swiss Alps to persuade her to write one more Ripley novel, to cap off her legacy. There follows a cat and mouse struggle and Ridgeway begins to exert more and more pull. Yet within the confines of the thriller convention, Murray-Smith teases more pertinent questions. How does it feel as an author to give birth to a character that will live on long after one's own name? The loneliness of the writer is played up beautifully, 'on the page you can play God', spits out Ridgeway, but in real life, people get in the way. It's not too much of a spoiler to say that the young man who comes to visit is not what he seems, but has Highsmith's own Frankenstein's monster come to deliver a final reckoning?

Director Lucy Bailey has become the go-to women in shaping the crime novel for the stage and her production is textured wonderfully. The atmosphere is all, and gradually the oxygen seems to leave the space as the denouement beckons. What starts as a dark comedy – there is a touch of Timon throwing his venom at his hangers-on in Highsmith's verbal bombardment of Ridgeway – soon feels like we may be accessories to murder. Like Chekhov's gun, a gleaming precious knife is introduced in the first act and comes into play by the fourth. It all plays out in William Dudley's set which cleverly enhances the work's moods from the naturalistic clutter of a beautiful writer's desk to a stylistic palette of mountain friezes and colourful sculptures that suggest we're not necessarily in Kansas anymore.

For those who only know Phyllis Logan as the kindly but stern Mrs Hughes from Downton Abbey, her Highsmith will come as a shock. Slumped forward, hair unwashed and wearing yesterday's chequered shirt she rasps out insults in a voice befitting a lifetime of abuse from cigarettes and alcohol. Logan may not puff away enough to suggest a writer who is always in need of one more toke, but she knocks back the scotch with aplomb. Finlay metamorphoses as the mood takes him from nervous intern to dark charmer as Ripley seems to come alive in front of our eyes.

Bath artistic director Jonathan Church may have had a rather aborted six-month tenure in Sydney but it has meant he has brought some of Australia's finest work back over here with him. Switzerland is a fine yarn that also gives real insight into the life of one of the 20th century's finest crime writers and gives the iconic Ripley another day in the sun. Worth catching.