Writer: Patricia Highsmith
Adaptor: Craig Warner
Director: Antony Banks
Reviewer: Matthew Forrest
The play opens with a somewhat distorted projection of the American flag, which soon fades leaving just the blood red stripes: it’s a vision that draws you in from the get-go. Strangers on a Train is that all too familiar of tales that sees the American dream turn into a nightmare!
Based on the 1950 novel by “the poet of apprehension”, Patricia Highsmith, the story begins with a chance meeting between two very different characters: On the one hand there is Guy Haines, an ambitious self-made architect and on the other Charles Bruno, a drunken loner, living off his parent’s wealth. Bruno forces himself into Haines’ world and as their journey progresses it would appear that both have similar problems. Bruno creates a hypothetical plan, where he would murder Haines’ troublesome wife and in exchange Haines would kill Bruno’s father. When Bruno makes good on his part of the deal, he begins to crank up the pressure on Haines; threatening to ruin his business and expose him to his fiancée, Anne Faulkner, until he gets what he wants.
This is an enjoyable but uneven production. Chris Harper brings a unique blend of playfulness and menace to the psychotic Bruno. Clearly unhinged, his performance becomes unbalanced as the narrative progresses, for him it is not about wanting his father dead – it is about having the power over Haines to ensure he follows through with it. This is in stark contrast with Jack Ashton as Guy Haines, who at first appears cool and unemotional, however, madness and anxiety take hold. They are supported by Hannah Tointon who is fine as the under-written, ‘all-American-girl’ Anne Faulkner: Tointon’s delivery of some of the more dramatic lines in the play leave a lot to be desired but overall she is likable and creates enough sympathy for her character. John Middleton is on great form as Arthur Gerrard, a private detective hell-bent on finding out the truth. It’s a small part but Middleton certainly adds a great deal of weight to proceedings that makes you wish there was more of him.
Where the production lets itself down is in the script: the pacing seems all over the place, the more dramatic elements of the play seem to be over in a flash, whilst other scenes are laboured. Yes, it’s a psychological thriller, and the manipulation of Haines by Bruno is done well, however, there is no feeling of peril or danger and the play suffers from this. Certainly, more could have been made of Gerrard’s ‘gumshoe’ character to inject more jeopardy.
One trick the production does have is the fantastic use of the set and lighting. The full stage is seldom used and instead we get a series of shifting panels to represent the various living quarters and the train carriage: it adds an element of claustrophobia and isolation to proceedings, acting as make-shift prison cells for Haines and Bruno. There were a few technical difficulties with panels not moving quick enough, but set designer David Woodhead should be given full credit for his bold innovative design. The set worked beautifully with Howard Hudson’s atmospheric lighting design, which comes into its own during the final scene.
This is an enjoyable but unremarkable night at the theatre, one that will draw you in and entertain but will be instantly forgettable once it has finished.
Runs until the 10th February 2018 | Image: Contributed