STRANGERS ON A TRAIN
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 29th January, 2018
Based on the 1950 novel by Patricia Highsmith, this adaptation by Craig Warner plunges us into an amoral world, where man’s actions are not punished by the rule of law – the judicial and law enforcement systems exist but only to the extent that they are bogeymen, incited to shape the course of the action. One man introduces himself to another as they travel on the same train across 1950s Texas. A few drinks and a bit of chit-chat give rise to a deadly pact between them. The extrovert Charles Bruno (Chris Harper) proposes to murder the troublesome wife of Guy Haines (Jack Ashton) in exchange for Ashton’s murder of Bruno’s stingy father… It seems like a joke, a bit of drink-induced fun. Except Bruno goes through with his part of the bargain and soon expects Haines to do his…
As the loudmouth Bruno, Harper dominates the action, coldly amusing – the life and soul of any party, were he not such a chilling killer. Harper recites Bruno’s account of the first murder with icy relish. On the other hand, Jack Ashton’s Guy Haines is a complete contrast. Initially more reserved than Bruno, we see him shut further in on himself as the consequences of the pact begin to pinch. Both of these central roles are compellingly portrayed. Haines struggles to keep his life on the rails while Bruno keeps crashing into it like a runaway train.
There is excellent support from Hannah Tointon as Anne, Guy’s second wife, showing more backbone than we might expect by the play’s denouement. Also impressive are Helen Anderson as Bruno’s doting mother and brief appearances from Sandy Batchelor as Frank and Owen Findlay as Robert.
The star name for this tour must be John Middleton. Formerly the mild-mannered vicar Ashley Thomas in Emmerdale, Middleton gives a more assertive performance as Arthur Gerrard, the trusty retainer of Bruno’s late father, who smells a rat and winkles out the truth. Just as the murders occur off-stage, so does the bulk of Gerrard’s investigation, and so it does seem as if he stumbles across the facts with ease – but this is not a whodunit, rather a will-they-get-away-with-it, and the focus is on the aftermath’s effects on the protagonists.
David Woodhead’s set places the scenes in compartments with sliding panels that reveal and conceal parts of the stage accordingly. This means the actors don’t have much room to manoeuvre, adding to the claustrophobia of the piece and the sense that events are closing in on the killers. Woodhead dresses the cast in sharp suits of the period, complementing the strains of cool jazz that serve as incidental music for scenic transitions. The production is suffused with an Edward Hopper feel: murky yet dispassionate. In the confined settings, director Anthony Banks keeps things from becoming too static (although the lengthy opening scene on the train is in peril of becoming just that) by drawing out the intensity of the performances. Each character is heightened in some way.
Consistently intriguing rather than gripping, the production offers, via Highsmith, a different take on morality. Whether we want either Bruno or Haines or both of them to get off scot-free is a reflection on us.