The Talented Mr Ripley @ New Diorama Theatre – February 2015

Not having read Patricia Highsmith’s famous 1955 psychological thriller yet (it’s been on the list for some time!) my only exposure to The Talented Mr Ripley prior to this production by the Faction, appearing as part of their coveted 2015 Rep season, had been the 1999 Hollywood movie starring Matt Damon and Jude Law. I was aware, therefore, of the compelling complexity of the plot and characters and satisfyingly correct in my assumption that this exuberant young company, directed here by the ever-innovative Mark Leipacher, would make a superb job of bringing it to the stage.

This, the tale of Tom Ripley, who is employed by a concerned American father to travel to Italy in an attempt to persuade his son, Dickie Greenleaf, to come home to New York, translates perfectly to the New Diorama’s small, somewhat claustrophobic space. As is ever the way with the Faction, the set is minimalistic and unfussy and Suzie Foster’s design of a white, square, raised platform with space underneath forming the cast’s ‘wings’ and a hole in the middle for them to emerge through, works brilliantly. Chris Withers’ lighting design is also incredibly effective, depicting Italy’s hot sun beautifully and often making the space feel far larger than it actually is.

Christopher Hughes gives a towering performance in the role of Tom Ripley, portraying and exploring every facet of this complex, dangerous young man with enormous energy and skill. He switches from vulnerable geek, to pathological calculator to terrifying killer throughout, a multi-faceted confidence trickster who lies, steals and murders his way through life.  His lack of remorse and sense of twisted pride at the play’s conclusion when he looks back on what he has done, cajoles the audience for a reaction and boasts about getting away with it, sent an actual, incredibly icy shiver up my spine.

Adam Howden’s self-assured, handsome Dickie appears in perfect, much-needed contrast to Hughes and the chemistry that gradually develops between the two men as Ripley manipulates the situation and plays on the generosity and kindness of a complete stranger, is a joy to behold. Natasha Rickman’s clueless, helplessly devoted Marge demands the audience’s empathy and the support from the remainder of the ensemble is always strong.

Mark Leipacher tends to employ attention-grabbing directive devices in his productions, and this one is no exception. I saw one critic complaining that his interesting depiction of the piece as a film within a play does not really work. However, my interpretation is a little less literal. Ripley is a man who loathes himself deeply and acts his life. Nothing he ever says or does depicts the true him, in his attempt to escape from himself. I therefore interpreted the film cameras and barked directions as though on a film set as a continuous, symbolic projection of the character’s false self which pervades the piece. Yes, it’s a film within a play, but only to the extent that Tom Ripley the character is the protagonist who has placed himself at the centre of his own big fallacy.

The length is a bit of an issue, and the second half drags a little in places as the authorities turn up to question Tom repeatedly on the disappearance of his friend. It doesn’t matter too much, though. This is an intelligent, unusual adaption encompassing some brilliant acting and should not be missed.

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