UN vengeful female lead in a tight bright dress stalks an older but powerful man late at night. There’s a whiff of Killing Eve to Alys Metcalf’s smart thriller, which energetically explores ideas around sex and consent, agency and gender. The play has been co-produced by Francesca Moody, who has a great eye for contemporary dramas that jolt and unsettle, including Fleabag. All the signs point towards a fierce feminist drama but Leopards, despite some lovely prowling, never quite purrs.
The earlier exchanges are intriguing, as twentysomething Niala and successful charity CEO Ben meet up for a drink in a strange hotel bar, quale designer Lily Arnold has filled with sharp angles and yawning spaces. The two have supposedly met to see if Ben might have a job for Niala but it’s not long before the conversation is laced with the promise of sex.
Metcalf is particularly good at capturing the wearily familiar dynamic between a young woman with lots to lose and an older man with everything to gain. Martin Marquez’s Ben hums with smug satisfaction and speaks with the sort of rolling confidence that comes from a life of rarely being interrupted. When Ben laughs self-deprecatingly it feels oddly self-congratulatory and he has a way of constantly adjusting his tie and smoothing down his jacket that radiates self-love.
Saffron Coomber is both ballsy and vulnerable and is particularly good at delivering Metcalf’s gleaming-sharp quips. It’s fascinating to watch Niala’s cunning power grab, as her feigned innocence gradually slides over into something much more commanding and she coolly begins to take control of the conversation, the innuendo – and where it might lead.
These subtle exchanges of power are played well and underscored by some enjoyably playful direction from Christopher Haydon (the storm outside is very, very stormy). But when the action moves into the bedroom, everything unsaid is suddenly spoken and mystery replaced with incredulity. The plot twists keep coming, beat after beat – notes stolen from a very different score. It starts to feel like the playwright is pulling the strings and not the characters, turning Niala into a puppet rather than a master.