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Review: Harry Clarke (Ambassadors Theatre)

Review by Daz Gale

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

2024 has got off to a strong start when it comes to plays in the West End with The Hills of California, Till The Stars Come Down, and The Picture of Dorian Gray all among those wowing audiences. Hoping to continue that trend is Harry Clarke, sharing its West End debut with Tony award-winning star Billy Crudup and writer David Cale. Will this one-man play be able to repeat its previous success in America? If you've caught the stars above this, you may already know the answer.



One man playing 19 characters in 80 minutes (with no interval) - that's the rather daunting ambition in Harry Clarke. It sees Philip Brugglestein invent the character of Harry Clarke only to find him getting stronger and more dominating, threatening to replace Philip altogether. What starts as a seemingly innocuous event has unexpected consequences that spiral and set Philip/Harry's life on a rather different course than he had ever expected.

 

There is one rather on-the-nose piece of dialogue in Harry Clarke about reviews spoiling the events of the show and it’s much better to go into a play knowing nothing. As readers of this website should know, I always make sure to reveal as little as possible about the show while still reviewing it as I believe everybody deserves to experience every show for themselves with all their secrets, twists, and surprises as impactful for them as it was the reviewer. With that in mind, you are safe to read on without fear of the events of the play being spoiled for you.


 

From the opening line setting the tone, Harry Clarke hooks you right from the start and leaves you gripped constantly for the next 80 minutes, never faltering even for a brief moment. To describe David Cale’s writing as sensational would be an understatement. Bordering on genius, he creates a character with so much depth, that he gives rise to multiple characters with both Brugglestein and Clarke having their distinctive characteristics. This extends to the other 17 characters we meet along the way with even the most throwaway and brief characters being meticulously thought out to match the impossibly high standard. With no shortage of laughs along the way, Cale’s phenomenal writing shows versatility as dark themes rear their head, leaving some far less humorous and even sinister moments. Truly impressive and inspiring throughout, Cale delivers what I consider to be one of the best-written new plays in a generation.

 

Leigh Silverman’s direction understands the purpose of Cale’s writing and never tries to undermine it with beautifully understated choices leaving a less is more approach, meaning even the slightest of movements or facial expressions have a huge impact. Alexander Dodge’s relatively bare-bones set design is never boring, working seamlessly with Alan C. Edwards's lighting to create an aesthetic so stunning, you almost believe Brugglestein and Clarke are different people entirely.



Cale and Silverman have worked together on Harry Clarke since its New York debut at the Vineyard Theatre in 2017. The dream team were joined by Emmy and Tony award winner Billy Crudup in both its previous runs in America, and he returns to the production this time, making his long-awaited West End debut. For the full 80 minutes, Crudup doesn’t leave the stage – with nowhere to hide, even the slightest fault would be picked up on. Add to the fact he has to play 19 distinctly different characters in a non-stop singular act, it isn’t the easiest task for even the most accomplished of actors. However, you wouldn’t know that from the effortless way Crudup performs.

 

Delivering what can only be described as a masterclass performance, Crudup is at the top of his game, captivating at every turn and charming away with his characterisation of the titular Harry Clarke. The sheer contrast of this to Philip Brugglestein allows Crudup to tap into the intricacies and differences between the two sides of his character in a way that shows him at the top of his game. In a demanding performance that would push anyone to their limits, Crudup amazes at every turn, from the back and forth of his two main characters to all of the weird and wonderful people they meet along the way. An extremely safe pair of hands, Crudup delivers one of the greatest performances I have seen on a West End stage in a long time in a breathtakingly accomplished and flawless turn. It is no wonder Crudup won a Drama Desk Award in America for his performance in Harry Clarke – don’t be surprised if he ends up adding some British theatre awards to that in the next year.



Less than three months into the year and the West End has already experienced some top plays that are vying for the far too premature title of play of the year. Harry Clarke is up there with the best of them, possibly even bettering them. With its multi-layered and complex writing to the faultless performance from the incredible Billy Crudup, this play is perfect in every way. Instantly accessible and ultimately thought-provoking, Harry Clarke is the very best of theatre as are everyone involved in this theatrical masterpiece.

 

Harry Clarke plays at the Ambassador’s Theatre until 11th May. Tickets available here

 

Photos by Carol Rosegg

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