Above all, this production of Strangers on a Train is memorable for its look. Designer David Woodhead has provided a set that has a huge presence throughout. The treatment of the story is highly stylised and steeped in 1950’s ambience. Strangers on a Train is a wonderful example of a classic psychological thriller.
Strangers on a Train: A novel of an evil man…and a weak man…and their terrible bargain. (from the original book cover, 1950)
In 1950 Patricia Highsmith published her debut novel Strangers on a Train. The story was adapted for film in 1951 by Alfred Hitchcock and subsequently picked up by Craig Warner. Warner produced a radio play in 2005 and a stage version in 2013. The stage version opened at the Gielgud Theatre in the West End in November 2013.
Strangers on a Train established Highsmith as a pre-eminent writer of crime novels, and she went on to write the popular Mr Ripley series. Strangers on a Train heralds her interest in the response to, and consequences of, guilt. The suspense element in the story comes not so much from whether the culprits will be found out as much as to whether they will actually commit the crime.
The story begins with the chance meeting of two strangers on a train. One is the heavily drinking and ebullient Charles Bruno who pesters the quieter, more reserved Guy Haines to join him firstly in a drink and then in a murder plot. Haynes joins him by a process of osmosis rather than free will.
Haines is reading Plato on the train and in the ensuing discussion of the concept of man possessing both good and evil within, Bruno suggests that all men are capable of murder. He goes on to propose that the two men should ‘exchange’ murders. They will be unsolvable because the two men are total strangers and so will be unconnected to the other’s crime. Followers of crime fiction will know that the offender always makes an error and so it is in Strangers on a Train.
In this narrative, Bruno represents evil and Haines the inherently good. Jack Ashton plays Dick Haines the cerebral architect who is on the way to divorce his first wife Miriam so that he can marry his new love, Anne. He meets Bruno who offers to murder Miriam in exchange for Haines despatching his father for a list of misdemeanours against the righteous son.
Chris Harper plays the agent of chaos, the joker Charles Bruno, with great gusto. From the beginning he delivers a high energy and complex performance. The drunk scenes are finely crafted and believable, as is the heightened scene with his mother. The ending is emotionally impactful and surprising.
The interplay between Ashton and Harper is very marked. Guy Haines is the only character not played in a melodramatic, heightened manner. The result of this choice is that Ashton appears to be under-energised and is often harder to hear than the rest of the cast. The director, Anthony Banks, often chooses to remove Haynes physically from the vicinity of the other players. It is an interesting device but causes the character to become lost in action and diminished in status.
Ashton does have some strong moments, particularly in the second act when all is falling apart and he admits to his new wife Anne that all will has died within him and he is a shell of his former self. Anne is played very winsomely by Hannah Tointon who has some nauseating business around ‘little kisses’. Tointon gives Anne a fresh innocence that grows to strength in the final scenes.
Also outstanding in her role is Helen Anderson as Elsie, the mother of Charles Bruno. Always elegant and in command of her character Anderson gives a totally believable performance in the breakdown scenes of the second act.
Looking like a version of the television detective Colombo, John Middleton plays Arthur Gerard, an employee of Bruno’s father who is determined to solve the mystery. Gerard finds the connections but opts to leave the culprits to suffer the consequences of their actions alone. It is a particular nod to the ethos of writer Highsmith and her interest in response to guilt, but requires the audience to suspend belief to some level. Middleton serves his character well as a catalyst to the resolution.
The wedding scene is enhanced by the small ensemble who effectively flesh out action with added depth. Sandy Batchelor is particularly amusing.
Above all, this production of Strangers on a Train is memorable for its look. Designer David Woodhead has provided a set that has a huge presence throughout. With the aid of video and projections by Duncan Heading, Woodhead’s set twists and turns like a giant jingo game to depict the numerous scenes within the story. It begins as the inside of a train carriage and fittingly ends in the graveyard of trains.
Along the way there are some stunningly beautiful visuals enhanced by the lighting design of Howard Hudson. Hudson makes effective use of side lighting and shadows that play with the set. One moment of particular beauty is towards the end of the first act. Elsie sits in her room on the first floor in solitude. The lighting exquisitely reinforces her situation.
At the performance Inattended, there was an unfortunate error and the back curtain was removed too early and, at the end of a series of catastrophes, it was brought back down on the actor herself as the set piece moved back.
The effect of the boxed set is used throughout until the last scene when the stage opens out into a cavernous space allowing for a huge advance in the narrative. It’s at this point that the acoustic dialogue is distorted by amplification. Music and sound by Ben and Max Ringham is used to great effect throughout.
The stage version differs from the book in places and quite markedly from the Hitchcock film version, however it stays true to the ideas of Patricia Highsmith on the issues of guilt and morality. This production also stays true to the look and sound of 1950’s in which the story was written, albeit that the pace is slower and the speeches longer than the modern norm.