Writer: Craig Warner, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith
Director: Anthony Banks
Reviewer: Lauren Humphreys
A chance meeting on a train introduces Charles Bruno and Guy Haines, two wildly different men but with problems in common. As the journey progresses, a hypothetical plan is hatched between the pair: what if Bruno kills Haines unfaithful wife in return for Haines bumping off Bruno’s much-loathed father? When Bruno follows through on his side of the imagined bargain, Haines is subjected to stalking, intimidation and blackmail.
Mistress of mystery Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel, Strangers on a Train was an instant hit on publication, with the heavily adapted Alfred Hitchcock classic film noir following quickly on its heels one year later. Good old-fashioned thrillers, once so prevalent on the theatrical landscape, are woefully few and far between, so it’s refreshing to see this classic chiller on stage. Craig Warner’s stage adaptation, (which had a run in the West End under the filmic direction of Robert Allan Ackerman in 2013 with a star-studded cast and a hugely impressive set) has been given a more perfunctory treatment here. Though it must be said it is undoubtedly simplified by necessity in order to tour the UK.
Images of the Hitchcock movie are seared on the memory: the tennis match with its subtle homosexual undertones; the creepily gripping murder of Haines’ first wife reflected in the eyeglasses and the suspenseful finale. Unfortunately, under the direction of Anthony Banks, there’s an overall sluggishness that fails to ratchet up the tension sufficiently, and large parts of the action plod. Another crucial flaw in the proceeding is that both murders take place off-stage and any chance at thrills and chills are passed over. At two hours 25 minutes, it’s a bit of an endurance test.
The directorial choices for the actors are also questionable at times. Populated by familiar TV faces, some emerge more convincingly than others: Coronation Street’s Chris Harper has the lion’s share of the dialogue and for the most part delivers a fully three-dimensional characterisation of Bruno however, his Tennessee Williams-like relationship with his louche mother does teeter too close to parody for comfort and the most emotional moments often read as too manic. Call the Midwife’s Jack Ashton’s delivers a coldly unemotional turn as Haines, failing to convey the character’s emotional descent: the words come out, the acting doesn’t convince. Hannah Tointon, best known for Mr. Selfridge, has a slim theatrical CV and it shows, while her role as Haines’ new wife is hideously underdeveloped, her delivery is quite frankly unforgivable, calling to mind the enthusiastic, but amateur thespian. Emmerdale veteran John Middleton is the only actor to emerge unscathed, delivering a strong performance with the little stage time he has, as private detective Arthur Gerard.
David Woodhead’s set design comprises a series of sliding panels and projections and while functional and at times clever, suffers in scale. Many locations are confined to a tiny box on the main frame of the set. It does though evoke Edward Hopper’s classic paintings of mid-century American life, especially when coupled with Howard Hudson’s atmospheric lighting design.
This much-anticipated thriller fails to live up to its potential and ultimately there are too many flaws to make it truly enjoyable.
Runs until 27 January 2018 then touring | Image: Contributed