It is always exciting to see something new from Joanna Murray-Smith and Switzerland did not disappoint. It is a tight 80-minute two-hander based on the character of American crime writer Patricia Highfield – creator of the cool killer Tom Ripley and author of Strangers on a Train, the novel that Alfred Hitchcock made into a classic movie. She is living in self imposed exile from her American home in Switzerland when she is paid a visit by a Edward Ridgeway, young man from New York.
Andrea Moor played Highfield while Matthew Backer played Edward Ridgeway, the nerdy, hesitant publishing company man. They worked as a perfect team, feeding off each other as the play, which had very Pinteresque undertones, led us along a mysterious path. Then, just when the audience was settling into the drift we were hit with a sudden and dramatic switch. Highfield is terminally ill and Ridgeway is there to get her signature on a contract to write one last Ripley book. In real life Patricia Highfield died of cancer in a Swiss hospital; in this play her end is still in Switzerland but much more dramatic. But is it real or just in her head?
Edward Ridgeway has brought some things from the US that Highfield had requested, odd things like soup, caviar, and a collector’s piece of a knife. This was an addition to her collection of classic murder weapons that featured in her work.
The exchanges between the stubborn young man and the acerbic writer are sometimes funny and sometimes angry as each tries to get their own way. For Ridgeway it is his chance to rise in the company, for her a chance to snub the misogynistic, male dominated literary crowd back home. In Europe she is lionised but at home she is “a high class detective novelist”. She refuses point blank to sign and the battle for supremacy begins.
Highfield then sets Ridgeway a challenge – help her plot a new Ripley murder and she will sign. The bespectacled young man accepts the challenge and so between them they forge a story involving the amoral killer Tom Ripley. Eventually they have to decide how to get rid of a miserly aunt who is in control of a family fortune.
“You find the answer and I sign the contract,” said Highfield. He does and the contract is signed and the lights go out to show passing time. Then came the shock: when the lights come up Ridgeway is a changed personality. His glasses are gone, his dress is sharp, and he is aggressive. Highfield doesn’t seem to notice his change, but starts to call him “Tom”. Are they acting out a scene for the book? Are they in the book? Is it reality or a dream, or does it all exist only in her imagination? Is Ridgeway playing the role of Tom Ripley or is he real? Is she going to die the death planned for the aunt in the plot or is something else afoot?
All this puzzle is acted out on one of the best sets (by Anthony Spinaze) I’ve seen on the Bille Brown studio stage (it even had a roof) and the lighting from Ben Hughes and a terrific soundtrack from Steve Toulmin accentuated the drama and suspense.
Company: Queensland Theatre Company
Venue: Bille Brown Studio, 78 Montague Road, South Brisbane
Dates: May 20 – June 26, 2016
Bookings: 1800 355 528 or www.queenslandtheatre.com.au
For more of Eric Scott’s writings on theatre, check out Absolute Theatre
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television