Strangers On A Train is based on the 1950 novel by Patricia Highsmith with a heafty nod at that Oscar-Winning Alfred Hitchcock film.
We begin the story as a fateful encounter takes place between two men in a carriage of a train crossing America. Guy is the successful businessman with a nagging jealousy; Charles is the cold, calculating chancer with a dark secret. A drunken dangerous plan seems to develop from this casual conversation setting in motion a chain of events that will change the two men’s lives forever.
The cast is led by Christopher Harper, playing the charismatic and manipulative Charles. John Middleton as Detective Arthur Gerard , Jack Ashton as the troubled Guy Haines alongside Hannah Tointon as Guy’s fiancé Anne Faulkner.
I suppose I’ve been on too many trains, with too many drunk and weird strangers to find this stylish over stuffed Cho-Cho anything other than a vintage trip along memory lane, carefully crafted to appeal but not to challenge. Like a trip on the Blue Bell railway, or a return to Hassocks on the last train on a Friday night, it gives good visuals, but felt oddly unsatisfying. It looks great, stylish, technically accomplished and its thumping narrative rhythm never lets anything get tired, there’s no time for that, but I was still not on the edge of my seat.
A thriller is supposed to thrill and director Anthony Banks seems to have missed out this vital part of the production. Most of the acting is convincing Christopher Harpers speech about his stalking and murdering the first Mrs Haines is compelling and he convinces us of his deranged, entitled, morally corrupt world, but when this dissolves into dipsomania it becomes a more predicable performance. Although Jack Ashton’s performance is strong thought-out and they work well together as a pair their increasingly fraught and scheming interactions failed to convince me of a man driven to murder against his will.
I, sigh…. have an issue with these sotto voice homophobic characters, Hitchcock loved killing his twisted queers off and Highsmith also not so subtly suggests that the drunk, repressed & unhinged Bruno gets exactly what he deserves. Blame it on the mother, Pat. The drinking and repression echo’s Highsmiths’ own experience and this gives us insight into the author more than the play, curiously of all the repressed evil homo’s she wrote she also sneaked a ‘happily every after’ lesbian romance novel out immediately after penning Strangers on a train, it was called The price of salt.
Some of the more seminal moments are not even staged, the murders, the discovery’s and the ex-police man role is reduced to just about as cardboard as you can get without corrugating in front of our eyes. John Middleton was wasted in this production. We were warned by the ushers this was a ‘quiet play’ before going in, not so for Middleton, he roared!
The set is a delight in its filmic glory but I wondered during another of the moments when my concentration begin to slide as much as the geometric panes on the stage why bother making it into a play if the effects are going full movie hog? It’s great to watch and suggested a huge Chinese box puzzle, one where all the elements had to be aligned correctly before the secret was resolved. The witty, clever projections from Duncan McLean are a delight and assist in suggesting place and tone successful. This is the same team who worked very successfully on the atmospheric and enjoyable Gaslight tour last year.
Costumes and lighting are lovely, sound scapes on point and the set, once again, looks like Edward Hooper and Frank Lloyd Wright got fresh with each other on the I Love Lucy set. It’s perfect retro Americana. I wonder if by intent the constant unsettled movement of the set to expose new space, new scene and new action results in a feeling of things isolated and disconnected from their environments, unsettling us and making me think of the solitude of each of these characters lives.
The play gets faster as it nears the end, with accusation, denouement and discovery landing with great thumps alongside some delicious acting as they all crumble into madness & gothic despair. The final scene is superb and closes the action well, leaving the plot holes gaping still, but the audience seemed satisfied with the denouement and gave this production some serious applause.
My companion enjoyed herself immensely; I wandered off into the cold night without so much as a shiver but with some superb new ideas for wallpaper. This is a charming production of a flawed play done with great style and commitment by the cast and this Iron Horse steams along at a great place but lacks a true heart, either one beating with dark wickedness or light goodness that would pull it up to heaven.
Until Sat 13th January
For more info or to buy tickets see their website here.