We first see Tom Ripley, clicking away at his typewriter keys, with his back to us. Turning around he asks us “Have you ever had the feeling you are being watched?” It is a leitmotif that bookends the show and many of the scenes within; and its delivery sets the scene, tearing down the fourth wall and drawing us completely into the mind of the character. For the next two hours we are hooked.
The slightly unsettling thing about witnessing The Faction’s “The Talented Mr Ripley” at Wilton’s Music Hall (and indeed reading Patricia Highsmith’s original 1955 novel) is how much you find yourself rooting for a double murderer. You want him to win – to get away with it. Orphaned and brought up by a cold, judgemental aunt, he is quite vulnerable, starry-eyed and charmingly naïve. But also, he is clever and able to outwit all around him, escaping from scrapes with flair and downright good luck. Christopher Hughes, as Ripley, plays on this dichotomy with sheer brilliance. A stunning performance during which he never leaves the stage, and during which you cannot keep your eyes off him.
But for all the attention Hughes attracts, there is still plenty of focus on the full ensemble in this tour de force of storytelling, particularly Luke Shaw as the shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf who sets the wheels of Ripley’s adventures in motion. Herbert’s son, Dickie, is living it up in Italy showing no signs of coming home. Mistakenly believing Ripley to be a close friend of Dickie’s he offers him an all expenses paid trip to persuade the wayward son to return to the roost. Eyeing a way out of the mess his life has become in America (and of course a free holiday), Ripley readily accepts and unwittingly takes his first step onto his murderous journey. A trail that winds dangerously through the plot twists with a white-knuckle intensity.
Christopher York is captivating as Dickie, and with Natasha Rickman’s Marge; the triangle is complete, although with Ripley kept on the margins rather than fully being allowed to steal into the lifestyle he so covets. So instead he steals lives and identities. Mark Leipacher’s direction keeps us on our toes, adding further twists into the already knotted narrative. Minor characters morph into shadowy figures that prey on Ripley’s paranoia and conscience. The action is occasionally brought to a halt with the cry of “Cut!” and the scene replayed with the outcome Ripley wants. He is, after all, in control, though the double-take suggests that he’s not a villain. He’s just busking it really – making it up as he goes along.
But that definitely can’t be said of this company’s inventive interpretation of the story. This is undoubtedly finely thought out. Dynamic, thrilling and imaginative.
“a bold, thought-provoking and inventive interpretation, coated in a dark tale but chock-a-block full of neat little treats”
Walking back to Waterloo Station after the show, I am approached by two moderately well-dressed gentlemen emerging from the crowds. I try to glance away, not look back; seized with a panic. There is a telephone booth half a block away, and two streets further on is the station; but the men’s shadows overtake me before I can step off the kerb. I try to quicken my pace. “Excuse me, Sir”. I freeze…
A playful exaggeration, maybe, of the after-effects of witnessing the Faction’s “The Talented Mr Ripley” at the Vaults Festival (the two men turned out to be evangelists from a nearby church) but my mood was an authentic reflection of how skilfully the play captures the cat-and-mouse psychological obsessions that fuel Patricia Highsmith’s original novel. The stakes remain high throughout the rapid-fire ninety minutes, yet Mark Leipacher’s excellent adaptation also manages to relieve the tension with high doses of humour.
Tom Ripley, a needy, nervous chancer is approached by Herbert – the wealthy father of a half-remembered acquaintance – to travel to Italy to bring back his wayward son, Dickie. Ever the opportunist, Ripley smells a quick buck and agrees. We follow Ripley to Italy, and beyond, on his murderous journey as he befriends, covets and becomes his new friend. The plot twists and turns as fast as the cast switch characters: a whirlwind – at the centre of which is the talented Christopher Hughes, whose Ripley never leaves the stage. Hughes gives an outstanding rendition of the chameleon character, slipping back and forth from obsequious buffoonery to manipulatively gaining the upper hand; all the while looking over his shoulder.
Although his is the pivotal role, he wouldn’t function without the precise and stylish, level playing support from the whole ensemble cast. Moments of physical theatre suspend the action while giving us a clear insight into the psychology of the characters. Shadowy gangsters in gabardines and fedoras become Ripley’s conscience, while in the later scenes Ripley’s moral compass is steered by the ghost of Dickie – a magnetic performance from Christopher York. Cries of “Cut!” occasionally interrupt a scene so it can be rewound and replayed with a different outcome: highlighting the fact that Ripley’s fate is governed by indecision, rather than a calculating criminal mind.
A large white raised platform, sunk in the centre, dominates Frances Norburn’s set design, behind, through and under which the characters appear and disappear. You never quite know where the next surprise is coming from. One of the biggest surprises, though, is the size (or rather smallness) of the cast. Jason Eddy, Vincent Jerome, Natasha Rickman, Emma Jay Thomas and Marcello Walton complement the two protagonists with their multi-rolling giving the illusion of a much larger company.
This is a bold, thought-provoking and inventive interpretation, coated in a dark tale but chock-a-block full of neat little treats. Cut down in size to fit the scheduling constraints of the VAULT Festival it loses nothing of Highsmith’s thrilling drama. On the contrary, the forced focus distils the narrative into a beautifully condensed and refined production.