Tag Archives: Helen Anderson

Going off the Rails

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.

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Chris Harper and Jack Ashton getting acquainted on the train

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Old Flames

GASLIGHT

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 10th January, 2017

 

Written in 1938, Patrick Hamilton’s taut thriller is a pastiche of Victorian melodrama: an innocent girl is persecuted by an evil man but the intervention of a hero saves her from doom and thwarts the evil-doer’s plot…

Kara Tointon is a picture of innocence as the vulnerable Bella, believing herself to be going around the twist.  She is child-like, infantilised by her hubby who manipulates her every mood.  Tointon endears herself to us, keeping on the right side of pathetic and making the heightened dialogue sound natural.  As her bullying husband, Jack, Rupert Young domineers, exuding evil.  What begins as a study in mental cruelty swiftly becomes something even darker as the true nature of the man Bella married is brought to light.

It’s not all darkness: the unexpected arrival of Bella’s saviour in the form of former detective Rough (Keith Allen) brings humour and more than a touch of levity to proceedings.  Of course, this accentuates the moments of tension and suspense by contrast. Rough is a breath of fresh air to Bella’s stuffy, shut-in existence, and Allen plays him with relish in a funny and yet compelling portrayal.  There is also humour in the roles of the maidservants.  Charlotte Blackledge’s Nancy is cheeky to the point of impudence, while Helen Anderson’s Elizabeth is a masterclass in comic playing, doing so much with a simple “Yes, Miss” or “No, Miss”.  Wonderful stuff.

David Woodhead’s set design is to be savoured, capturing the oppression of Bella’s existence with a looming ceiling and dark panelling.  The set is enhanced by Howard Hudson’s lighting, which renders the action almost sepia at times, like the fading portraits on the walls, and, of course, the all-important gaslight that is so crucial to the plot. The sound design, by Ben and Max Ringham, augments the tension with dissonance, while Anthony Banks’s direction winds up the suspense like a watch spring.  Banks reins in the melodramatic excesses to keep the behaviour credible for a modern audience and this high-quality production proves this creaky old drama still has power to thrill.

You can tell it’s working when the villain is booed during his curtain call!

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Kara Tointon (Photo: Manuel Harlan)