Melissa Blease reviews award-winning thriller Switzerland, starring Phyllis Logan, on at Ustinov Studio, Bath until 1 September

“Switzerland? It’ll be all about euthanasia, cuckoo clocks and chocolate.”

It was, I suppose, the inevitable comment, tossed at me by somebody-who-thinks-he-knows-everything when I told him the title of the play that’s currently showing at the Ustinov Studio. But just as there’s more to Switzerland than Dignitas, time-keeping and Toblerone, there was more to acclaimed, prolific crime writer Patricia Highsmith than her most popular character, Tom Ripley.

Having “given up on America forever” in 1963, Highsmith lived briefly in England and Italy before voluntarily exiling herself in Switzerland. She spent the last 14 years of her life (Highsmith died in 1995) living in Tegna, Locarno, with just her typewriter, her cigarettes, her whisky, her beloved cat and an escargatoire of snails for company. And it’s at this point in her life that we get uncomfortably close and discomfitingly personal with one the most fascinating, intelligent writers of the 20th century, courtesy of this fascinating, intelligent production of Joanna Murray-Smith’s 2014 fascinating, intelligent play.

Highsmith was a keen collector of weapons of mass destruction, designed to inflict maximum damage in the most slick, efficient way – and her personal armoury of vintage pistols, axes, swords and daggers add a menacing touch to William Dudley’s set recreating her mountain retreat. But it is Highsmith’s personality itself that causes the damage when Edward – a young ambassador from her New York publishing house – arrives to attempt to persuade her to write just one more book.

Highsmith’s attitude is appalling, her prejudices poisonous, her vituperations vile – and, from the very first vitriolic outburst until the final nauseating denouement, Phyllis Logan is the consummate anti-heroine: a self-righteous, loathsome, seething mass of acrimonious bile, as intoxicatingly captivating as she is repugnantly sickening. One part Baby Jane Hudson, one part Zenia the Robber Bride, but (allegedly) all parts this-is-what-Highsmith-really-was-like.

To call her a doughty opponent against which to pit your wits is an understatement, and in the opening scenes, it doesn’t look as though the initially nervous (and who can blame him?) Edward has the guts to take the glory. But when Calum Finlay rids himself of Edward’s nerdy anorak, peels off his comfortable pullover and ditches his cumbersome baggage, he reveals far more about his character’s personality as he smoothly, seamlessly transforms from benign, deferential people-pleaser to manipulative Machiavellian puppeteer.

Cigarettes, chagrin and antisemitism. Ambition, canned mushroom soup and dissatisfaction. Creativity, bigotry and sexuality. Death, brutality and whisky – the relentless tirade of socially divisive themes makes those of us tired of listening to polite small talk about the weather crave the glow of fake sunshine in a sanitised, commercial theme park. At times, you’ll feel as though you’re at the most nightmarish, surreal dinner party you can possibly imagine, without either the dinner or the party elements.

It’s as intense, claustrophobic and dark as Hitchcock at his best; as subtly harrowing as American Psycho at its worst.

The talented Ms Joanna Murray-Smith has presented us with one of the best theatrical neo-noirs of the decade. You really don’t want to like Highsmith, but somehow you do. You really want to be fighting Edward’s corner, but somehow you can’t. By the closing scenes, you’ll wish you’d spotted the plot twist earlier on, but somehow you didn’t. If you want to see a play about Toblerone and cuckoo clocks, this isn’t it.

Main image: Phyllis Logan as Patricia Highsmith in Switzerland