Writer: Craig Warner
Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith
Director: Anthony Banks
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels
A gripping psycho-thriller by the crime novelist Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train is one to keep you on the edge of your seats. Small wonder then that it was made into a highly successful film by that master of suspense and nastiness Alfred Hitchcock in 1951, just a year after Highsmith’s best-selling book was published.
This brand-new production, Craig Warner’s play directed by Anthony Banks, is a formidable tour-de-force encompassing as it does delving into psychology and morality, the recesses of a dark mind and the frailty of man. A psychotherapist would have a field day. All credit to both Warner and Banks for their handling of this material in a way that keeps you guessing as to the outcome. Having said that, the first act is slow to combust and lacks the edginess of Raymond Chandler’s screenplay for the Hitchcock film. However, it is perhaps not fair to compare two such different genres.
A chance meeting on a train by two complete strangers starts the story off. One of them, Charles Bruno, played by Chris Harper, turns out to be a ruthless psychopath, planning to get rid of his father in order to get his hands on his money. He sets up a conversation with the other man, Guy Haines (Call the Midwife’s Jack Ashton) who, after a couple of drinks, reveals that he is in the process of seeking a divorce but his wife won’t let go. Bruno suggests that bumping them both off would save much inconvenience. Furthermore, if they exchange murders neither of them will be caught. As the plot develops, Haines is reluctantly drawn further and further into a net of intrigue and wickedness.
On stage for almost the entire play, Harper gives an insightful performance as Charles Bruno; a man whose mind knows no borders; a man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. While Harper might appear at times to be underplaying the role in the first half, he steps up the tension in Act II as the psychopath’s demands increase and it becomes ever more obvious that the dilemma facing Haines is inescapable.
The latter is a weak man who is no match for the wiles of the psychopath; a spider caught in a web of deceit and wickedness from which he struggles to escape. At his best as he goes head to head with the psychopathic Bruno, Ashton is less believable in the scenes with his wife- to- be Anne, played by Hannah Tointon as a naïve ingénue whose girlishness blinds her to the truth. Coming into his own in the second half, veteran actor John Middleton as the factotum/private eye Arthur Gerard shows his expertise in a role that adds a further dimension to the whole, as does that of accomplished actress Helen Anderson who plays Bruno’s mother in a clever portrayal of a mother whose failure to acknowledge the truth about her son contributes to his ultimate downfall.
The play relies in no small degree on designer David Woodhead’s brilliant set with its clever use of sliding panels. His representation of the train is particularly to be commended, as is the realistic engine puffing out clouds of steam, with flashing warning lights and hooter blasting.
Runs until 31 March 2018 | Image: Contributed