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Harry Clarke at the Ambassadors Theatre review: Billy Crudup's showboating performance elevates a limp play

Billy Crudup stars in Harry Clarke (Carol Rosegg)
Billy Crudup stars in Harry Clarke (Carol Rosegg)

Never mind the thin, shaggy dog-story of a plot: this monologue is all about Billy Crudup’s mercurial, showboating performance. The star of Almost Famous and The Morning Show is also a Tony Award-winning Broadway veteran, and he evokes a panoply of characters in this tale of an uptight gay man whose swaggering alter ego runs riot.

Crudup first did David Cale’s play in New York in 2017, and in his London debut has the audience eating out of his hand. His performance, and the direction of Leigh Silverman, are better than the material deserves.

On a set comprising a seascape backdrop and a steamer chair, Crudup is galvanized by an impish internal energy into startling physical and facial transformations. Shy, Indiana-born Philip Brugglestein morphs into brash, British, omnisexual Harry Clarke. Then into the people Harry seduces: a repressed moneyman, his trustafarian singer sister, their huge-haired Jewish mum.

The characterisations are broad and the larky tone is set by the opening line: “I could always do an immaculate English accent.” After which Crudup gives us two, a strangulated aristocratic squawk for Philip and a clotted mockney for Harry, both terrible. It doesn’t really matter. This is about the performative spinning of a tall story, and a chance for a man the camera loves to exercise his theatrical muscles.

 (Carol Rosegg)
(Carol Rosegg)

Cale’s monologue has been compared to Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels but has almost no psychological depth. All we know about Philip is that he had a homophobic father and a dead mother, used his ‘Englishness’ as a shield, and lives in a quirkily furnished Manhattan room while very occasionally working as a barista.

He invents Harry – supposedly a former tour manager for Eighties soul singer Sade – to get out of a sticky situation and the persona takes on a life of its own. Every audacious lie or cocksure move that should expose Harry merely gets him more social and sexual access to a gilded elite.

You could read it as a study of the ego versus the id or a social satire, but it’s not that clever. A hint that Harry was always there, acting out Philip’s desires, fizzles out. Some of the narrative twists beggar belief and the 80-minute story ends abruptly. Cale left England for New York in the 1970s which may explain Harry’s use of phrases like “having it off”, “nice knickers” and “Gordon Bennett!”

Does it work? Ultimately, no. Crudup gives a beguiling performance and his presence here will delight established admirers. But he’s not a supernova like Sarah Jessica Parker, whose mere appearance live onstage can transcend a limp, lacklustre play.

Ambassadors Theatre, to May 11; book tickets here