'Harry Clarke' review – Billy Crudup is mesmerising as an unreliable shapeshifter in this Ripley-esque tale

Read our review of the thrilling one-man show Harry Clarke, now in performances at the Ambassadors Theatre to 11 May.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Self-reinvention is the springboard for Harry Clarke, the solo play by David Cale, the US-based Brit who has given the Tony-winning actor (and film name) Billy Crudup a signature role across the last seven years.

I saw Crudup in Leigh Silverman’s production Off Broadway in 2017 and admit that some of its novelty value wears off on a second viewing. I think, too, that rather more modulated pacing would benefit material that, in this London iteration, feels rather too pell-mell, especially at the start. You feel the effort of all involved to sustain what in effect is a mildly overwrought 80-minute caprice.

Still, there’s no disputing the eerie fascination exerted by this Ripley-esque tale, which unfolds on a bare stage, marked out only by a single deckchair, but looks into a very messy, murky mind indeed.

Harry Clarke is in fact Philip Brugglestein, a timid Midwesterner who only really feels himself when adopting the faux-English accent that drives his parents nuts. “You don’t stop talking in that bratty Brit accent, I’m takin’ you to the doctor,” threatens his abusive father – who soon co-operates by dying.

Before long, Philip and his Indiana/Illinois origins are a thing of the past and the swaggering Harry has started life afresh in New York. One day, he trails a Long Islander called Mark Schmidt into the Paramount Hotel, only to encounter Mark again by chance at an Off Broadway play. “It’s unusual to be in the theatre and feel tension,” Mark says of the show they both happen to be at, and one feels the meta-possibility, however briefly, that they might as well have ended up watching Harry Clarke itself.

What ensues is an elaborate game of cat and mouse that Harry conducts essentially with himself, even if he makes his psychic and physical presence known to Mark’s sister Stephanie and their sexually rapacious mother, Ruth. Crudup inhabits all these characters and more – 19 in total – with chameleonic ease: Ruth draws perhaps the biggest laugh of the night with her aversion both to uncircumcised penises and shrimp.

Mark succumbs to drugs, Harry dyes his hair blonde and has a reckoning with London that is sure to land with redoubled mirth locally during this limited run. On that front, one has to salute Crudup. It can’t be easy as an American making your West End debut to announce in the opening sentence one’s skill at “an immaculate English accent”, but a CV that includes the Richard Eyre-directed film Stage Beauty has surely helped imbue Crudup with the necessary confidence.

One wonders, in context, whether the actor is roaming the East End on days off so as to inhabit the vaguely Guy Ritchie-inflected territory traversed by the swaggering Harry, who manspreads as if to the manner born and extols such macho-adjacent movies as Sexy Beast.

But Harry isn’t the most reliable narrator, and Crudup is especially good at those moments when his character’s facade cracks and he falls to the floor in despair or cries “Who are you?” into the heartless void.

At such times, the prevailing affect recalls Samuel Barnett’s bravura turn as a similarly conflicted monologist last autumn in Feeling Afraid as if Something Terrible is Going to Happen. Harry may have fallen on his feet, but his fractured self, one feels, will never be made whole.

Harry Clarke is at the Ambassadors Theatre through 11 May. Book Harry Clarke tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Harry Clarke (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

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