Harry Clarke review: Billy Crudup is mesmerisingly magnificent in riotously rude romp | Theatre | Entertainment

“Who am I?” screams the sobbing man, desperately alone on stage, apart from a deck chair and side table.

It’s a gut-punchingly powerful moment, beautifully delivered, in a show that is primarily a light-hearted, frequently hilarious, romp through some disturbingly dark themes. The paradox lies at the heart of what works and doesn’t work in David Cale’s thoroughly entertaining 2017 shaggy dog’s tale of despair and deception, camp quips, crazy capers – and lots of shagging.

It’s all elevated by a scintillating performance from Billy Crudup, tackling 19 characters with such megawatt charm and charisma that the 80 minutes without interval fly by. No surprise from a man on a current career roll with his Emmy-winning role in The Morning Show.

I belly-laughed and was unexpectedly touched. It’s a tonic from so much other self-regarding, navel-gazing worthiness in the theatre in London’s West End. I cheered at the end, and I absolutely despair of certain snide critics’ comments mocking his wobbly posh and Cockney accents. Were they not paying attention? That is the whole damned point….

We first meet the fluttering, twittering Philip Brugglestein, who recounts how he ended up basking in said deck chair. As a bullied fey child in Indiana he escaped into a strangled upper-class Brit persona reminiscent of Family Guy’s Stevie, while a secondary swaggeringly brutish alter ego Harry Clarke occasionally emerged. 

Philip flees to New York, completely consumed by his cod-aristo affections, flailing and failing in various jobs until he meets closetted jockish heir Mark. Harry takes complete charge back then and (cleverly) in the narration. He cockily gaslights and seduces Mark and his sister and mother in riotously rude scenes.

Pretending to be Sade’s ex-manager, the lies spiral but Harry always comes out on top – sexually, situationally and ultimately financially.

Philip knows it is wrong but moans into a mirror, “Why am I so timid but when I’m Harry I’m exhilaratingly free?”

Crudup handles every change in mood with insouciant ease and flickers between characters in conversation with dazzling dexterity. Some of the many characters are ridiculous, some tragic. All expertly skewered. Mark is a broken, lost boy and Harry cares for him as best he can as the filtered fragment of Philip’s fractured personality.

There is pathos and pain amid all the escapades and close scrapes, and Crudup is mesmerising and masterful throughout. 

Sure, the darkest core of abuse, self-loathing and resulting schizophrenia is skimmed over. Cale’s script soars on catty one-liners and cartoony characters, but rarely achieves true life. Inescapable Jeckyl and Hyde echoes of the far more penetrating Talented Mr Ripley are unfulfilled. 

But then, this is Philip’s version of his life and he is never willing to fully face himself in that mirror or let us see beyond his fragile facade. To try might tear him and his unreliable fictions apart. We must leave him basking in his deckchair, the unlikely hero of a story even he never believed he could survive.


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