wed 17/04/2024

Harry Clarke, Ambassadors Theatre review - an entertaining curio | reviews, news & interviews

Harry Clarke, Ambassadors Theatre review - an entertaining curio

Harry Clarke, Ambassadors Theatre review - an entertaining curio

Billy Crudup essays multiple characters as a fake Englishman abroad

Cor blimey guv'nor! Billy Crudup as 'Harry Clarke'Carol Rosegg

Is it just coincidence, or something about the post-Covid theatrical landscape, that one-person shows are becoming commonplace; don’t producers know that it’s OK to share a stage again? 

Hot on the heels of Andrew Scott’s Vanya, in which the actor played eight parts, and Sarah Snook’s whopping 26 characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray, American actor Billy Crudup makes his London theatre debut with eight or so of his own, in a play he premiered in New York in 2017. Though certainly entertaining, this is the most modest and least satisfying of the three productions, the issues being with the play itself rather than the performance. 

Crudup is the eponymous Harry Clarke, but first he’s Philip Brugglestein – the play’s chief narrator. A timid young man, originally from Illinois, Philip relates a tormented childhood, persecuted by an abusive and homophobic father. As a child, Phillip discovered the common escape route of make-believe: “I could be myself,” he recalls, “if I had an English accent.”  When old enough, he flees to New York, where playacting becomes permanent reinvention, as an Englishman abroad. 

His first Englishman is a bit posh and every bit as meek and inconsequential as the real Phillip. Years later, he discovers he can have much more fun as a brasher, bolder Cockney, Harry, who claims to be the former manager for the singer Sade, and uses this flimsy claim to fame to inveigle himself into the lives of a rich and very gullible family, each of them eager for some sexual diversion.

Director Leigh Silverman and designer Alexander Dodge opt for minimalism and simplicity (blue-sky backdrop and a garden chair is pretty much it), leaving the actor responsible for the play’s kinesis. As with Scott and Snook, Crudup faces the dual demand on memory – not just reams of text, but numerous characters and no-one but oneself to bounce off. He handles all of that with aplomb, though the accent is a challenge: posh is fine, the Cockney gallops all over the place – possibly a deliberate choice (after all, the man’s a fraud), possibly not; either way, a London audience will find it far more alienating than an American one. (I’d swear I heard flashes of Cary Grant which, if intended, would be inspired, given the Cockney component of Grant’s distinctive Mid-Atlantic delivery.)  

Playwright David Cale may be drawing on at least a little personal experience here: English born and bred, he changed his name on moving to New York in the Seventies and would have experienced the same American fascination for Brits that Phillip so enjoys. Nevertheless, what he’s offering here is just a little too strange and unfocussed. The play teases with the possibility of schizophrenia, but doesn't delve beyond the well-trod path of persecuted childhood leading to split personality; there’s no great insight or import, the potential for either dark drama (The Talented Mr Ripley) or social satire (Theorem) doesn’t bear fruit, and neither Philip/Harry nor any of the people they meet are particularly engaging – all but Philip being far too loud and broad for that. 

The comedy of this unlikely man and his machinations does work, thanks to some zinging one-liners and Crudup’s charm, chutzpah, and timing. The actor is, also, a dab hand at playing duplicity, whether the treacherous spy of Mission: Impossible III, the oleaginous lawyer defending abusive priests in Spotlight, or the impish TV network chief in The Morning Show; the kind of ambiguity he can offer serves a character who’s struggling with his own personalities, while leading others up the garden path. 

The comedy does work, thanks to some zinging one-liners and Crudup’s charm, chutzpah, and timing


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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