Patricia Highsmith’s novel, telling the story of two protagonists’ fateful encounter, was first published over 60 years ago; however, theatregoers and thrill-seekers alike will be better acquainted with the original story thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation that shortly followed. This new production of Strangers on a Train is not your typical feel-good West End fare that proves so popular at the moment. Instead the audience faces an evening of gripping intrigue that isn’t always entirely pleasant.
To summarise, Guy Haines and Charles Bruno meet on a train and each quickly discover that the death of an individual close to them would have its benefits. Bruno suggests they perform each other’s dirty work, as their crimes would be untraceable due to the lack of any connection. The two men go through with the plan, thus leaving them inextricably attached to each other forever.
It may be an enthralling and new story to many young theatregoers, yet the tale itself fights for recognition amongst Tim Goodchild’s sublimely-used revolving set. Over the course of the evening it provides a masterclass in how smooth transitions can aid a thriller such as this, to gain vital momentum – most notably in the first act, as we are transported from train cabin to apartment to local fairground seamlessly.
Similarly to the set, the costumes and lighting all remain various shades of monochrome, with only two dramatic flashes of colour throughout the whole production – one of which provides the shocking climax, as the two broken men fail to come to terms with the magnitude of their acts.
Fox’s portrayal of Haines is sadly not as successful as one would hope. From monosyllabic, emotionless city man, he quickly descends into one who has lost all interest in life and his lovers, to be consumed by his now unbreakable attachment to a man he met by chance. The portrayal is problematic as it escalates to breakdown level too quickly, leaving Fox nowhere to go; he is angry at his predicament, and remains angry until the conclusion.
Jack Huston is impressive as happy-go-lucky chancer Charles Bruno, who is relentless in his pursuit of his father’s money by any means necessary. Bruno is a lush, rarely seen without a glass of Scotch in his hand. He is delightfully sneaky, creeping up when least expected: the gasps of the audience as he soundlessly appears on stage are audible.
Imogen Stubbs is divine as a fading socialite who slowly suffocates her son with so much doting love that he feels the need to free himself from it in the most shocking way possible. She drawls and moans her way through her scenes, and has an undoubted stage presence that lifts some of the very darkest moments.
For newcomers to the work the subject matter is immediately thought-provoking, as it explores the possibilities and, indeed, the quite frankly dangerous potential that two strangers can possess. No-one is to know you have encountered them, so what really is possible? The play explores what these ingredients can achieve, against a backdrop that is classically film noir – but shades of Hitchcock are never far away.
Strangers On A Train is playing at the Gielgud Theatre until 22 February 2014. For more information and tickets see the ATG Tickets website.
Photo © Brinkhoff/Moegenburg