“Harry Clarke” at Ambassadors Theatre

Mark Shenton in the West End
15 March 2024

Philip Brugglestein, Harry Clarke’s lonely narrator and fabulist who invents an entirely new life and persona for himself in this one-man, 19-character solo show, tells us he “could always do an impeccable English accent”. Importing this vehicle for the middle-ranking American stage and screen actor Billy Crudup to make his West End debut seven years after its 2017 premiere (at off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre, off Union Square) definitely tests the validity of that assertion, as he tries out two extremely variable, exaggeratedly heightened English accents.

It’s an affectation he first improvised at the age of eight (to the intense annoyance of his homophobic father, who died when he was 18), and then builds a completely fictitious identity around, whose accent works to lure a wealthy Manhattan family into his bed. First, the alcoholic, drug-addicted Mark Schmidt, then the man’s aspiring musician sister, and finally even their Sade-obsessed mother (who is drawn by Harry’s claim to have worked for her as her tour manager and personal assistant).

That’s about all there is to the plot, though it spins and corkscrews from revelation to revelation to maintain some narrative tension. However, as we know from the outset that Harry is entirely a fabricated character, it could go in any direction. It’s also a familiar enough dramatic conceit, powering stories from The Talented Mr Ripley to the recent Netflix-released feature film Saltburn. (Both of which coincidentally also draw on the sexual ambivalence of their lead character in operating their deceptions.)

Director Leigh Silverman keeps the pace sharp across the 80 minutes we are in Philip’s company, and Crudup, sitting centre stage in a wooden deckchair with only a side table for company on which stands a single glass of water (that he doesn’t finish), gives a virtuoso performance in summoning a gallery of nearly 20 characters. (There’s a vista behind him to offer light visual distraction, designed by Alexander Dodge.)

Although his English accent is, as noted, as fabricated as the rest of his story, the Tony and Emmy Award-winning Crudup has a keen actor’s sense for showcasing different people with infinite changes of tone and expression. And unlike in Sarah Snook’s current solo turn in The Picture of Dorian Gray (running at the Theatre Royal Haymarket), it is achieved without a battery of cameras and costume changes.

It’s an entertaining, diverting enough story – but playwright David Cale’s meditation on shifting and invented identities doesn’t deliver a dramatic pay-off for all the effort and polish of its delivery.