Strangers on a Train is a welcome stage adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name, published in 1950 and turned into a film shortly thereafter by one Alfred Hitchcock.
The plot follows Guy Haines, an architect in the process of trying to divorce his wife Miriam in order to be with another woman, and his chance meeting on a train with a man named Charles Bruno. Bruno is a curious man; affable enough, but a walking cauldron of daddy and mummy issues.
As fate throws them together on one fateful train journey, Bruno takes a shine to Haines and his enthusiasm and perceived connection with him leads Bruno to table a rather tantalising idea: what if Bruno kills Haines’ wife Miriam, and Haines kills Bruno’s father? An exchange of murders that would solve both of their problems, arranged between two complete strangers – how would the authorities ever come to link them, let alone suspect them as culprits?
As Bruno’s instability comes ever further into the light, Haines finds himself dragged into a quagmire of deceit and blackmail that threatens to envelop his life – and the people he cares about.
Strangers on a Train stars Laurence Fox (Lewis) as Guy Haines, and Jack Huston as Charles Bruno. Or, rather, it’s supposed to – sadly, on the night of CultBox’s visit to the lovely Gielgud Theatre in London, Mr. Huston was ill and unable to perform, with the role of Bruno instead played by Anthony Jardine.
Whilst Huston’s role in Boardwalk Empire has made him one of the British actors to watch out for, our disappointment at his absence was felt far less keenly once Jardine took to the stage. As Bruno, Jardine excelled. It’s impossible to say how he compares to Huston in the role, but at no point was there the sense that we were watching an understudy.
Jardine perfectly conveyed the manic neediness of Bruno, and the fragile nature of the man’s grasp on reality, whilst his interactions with his coquettish mother (Imogen Stubbs) certainly set the skin to crawling. Jardine’s reaction after the final curtain told of a man relieved to get through the performance – but he seized an opportunity he might never have expected to have with aplomb; fully deserving of the night’s biggest applause.
As the two women in Haines’ life, Downton Abbey’s Myanna Buring (as fiery-haired, fiery-spirited Miriam) and Spooks actress Miranda Raison (as Anne, the lovely embodiment of everything Haines stands to lose) give wonderful, captivating performances.
Sadly, particularly given that he’s a lead in the show full time, Laurence Fox’s turn as Guy Haines is something of a misfire. Whether this was due to the circumstance of playing opposite an unfamiliar lead or not is hard to say, but Fox’s delivery comes off, for the most part, as mechanical and uninterested. His line-readings are rushed to the extent that it’s often difficult to discern what Haines is supposed to be saying. It’s as if Fox wants to hurry through the performance, and get it over with.
Next to Jardine’s perfect control of his out-of-control character, it’s jarring to see Fox so rigidly and emphatically uncomfortable in his. Fox improves after the intermission, but remains by far the production’s weakest link.
And as for the production, there’s a case to be made for the stage set-up being the real star here. The production team have created a carousel-like set, whereby the stage rotates 360 degrees, partitioned off into thirds, so as to provide three different sets and scenes, which the characters can then travel between as the stage rotates. When one of the faces is playing to the audience, somehow the back-stage crew are completely changing the set-ups of the other two.
That all of this happens seamlessly and silently is astonishing – these sets are detailed and wildly different. At one point an actual fairground carousel is utilized, and in the blink of an eye – or the rotation of the stage – you’re back in an office – and a hitherto unseen one at that! Quite how the crew achieve these transformations is a mystery.
The costumes and set-dressings – as well as the grey colour palette – have the effect of beautifully translating the look of a Hitchcockian film noir to the stage. You could feasibly wonder if your eyesight has turned to black and white.
As a physical production, Strangers on a Train is a marvellous achievement, and deserves to be seen on the strength of that alone. That the story is also exciting, fascinating and provocative is the icing on the cake. And if Fox’s performance never quite sits right, there are enough strong characters and players around him that Strangers on a Train never threatens to derail.
Performed on Tuesday 28 January 2014 at the Gielgud Theatre in London.