Writer: Craig Warner based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith
Director: Anthony Banks
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Patricia Highsmith’s crime novels stand out because, unlike many of the genre, her murderers are less pursued by the police than by their own psyches. Nowhere is this set out more plainly than in the opening scene of this adaptation of her first novel, Strangers on a Train. Based on an argument by Plato, the characters discuss that people have white and black horses inside them, representing pure good and pure evil. The worst crime, it is suggested, is to be grey.
And grey this adaptation most certainly is not. The closest it gets is David Woodhead’s set design, which involves off-white textured panels covering the whole of the proscenium space – but its intrinsic colour is rarely seen, instead being a receptacle of projections of the various buildings around America in which the story is set.
The panels regularly slide away to reveal rooms and, of course, the railway carriage which gives the play its title. A highlight of this two-storey arrangement is a New York bar, lit by Howard Hudson as an evocation of Edward Hopper, the artist’s 1950s Americana acting as a proxy for impending horror.
And yet the tension is maybe a little too slow to start building in the first act. The slow pace does allow Chris Harper to paint a vivid portrait of Charles Bruno, a trust fund louche who first comes up with the plan – for he and Jack Ashton’s Guy Haines to murder the figure in each other’s lives which is holding them back.
There is much to suggest in Harper’s performance of some other, unstated demons in Bruno’s mind that might have made his susceptibility to his own black horses all the greater. Certainly, his character contains many traits that can be decoded as implications that he is a homosexual man, living in a world where expressing such love was illegal. His obsessive pursuit of Haines, ostensibly to needle him into reciprocating a murderous act, has the sheen of a spurned lover, unable to accept the spurning of a lover who returns to his wife.
But as Bruno descends into not-particularly-high-functioning alcoholism, inveigling himself into the domestic life of Haines and his new wife, Anne (a sparkly Hannah Tointon) it is Ashton’s characterisation of Haines that becomes the more compelling. The slow breakdown of his resistance to the thought of murdering Bruno’s father begs us to consider what it would take for an upstanding individual – one who has an archetypal wholesome family and burgeoning career – supposedly everything the American male could want – to surrender all that.
In support, Helen Anderson paints a warm portrait as Bruno’s mother, her close relationship with her son in part enabling his self-destructive hedonism. And while John Middleton’s private detective – who only arrives in the picture in the second act – seems to possess a supernatural sense of which buttons to press to uncover the treachery, his probing does make the tension in Act II far more palpable than in the show’s initial slow burn.
The tension is somewhat lessened by Sandy Batchelor’s Frank, a work colleague of Haines whose over-the-top bonhomie may have been intended as a slab of humour in a play otherwise lacking in such. However, the character comes across more as annoying, making one wish that in addition to the two offstage murders a third, onstage, one might occur.
That aside, the result is a solid thriller. Not one in which we wonder whodunnit, or even whether they will get away with it – in true Highsmith mode, the tension is in how quickly one’s own conscience will tighten the noose.
Runs until 24 March 2018 and on tour | Image: Contributed