Image: Gielgud Theatre
With stage decorations to fill any design student’s wildest dream, Strangers on a Train is not only a tense, emotive and dynamic play but a visual spectacle to remember.
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name and later turned into a thriller by Hitchcock himself, the play has much to live up to. Hitchcock’s influence is undeniable in the noir style of the decoration, music and costume. The revolving stage, the modernist sets, the black and white projections and the hard work of no less than six stage managers in accomplishing such a complex backdrop are all worthy of mention.
One of the darkest stories about a chance encounter, Strangers on a Train features Highsmith’s renowned device of depicting a life forever changed by a singular event. Set in the 1950’s, it tells the story of enigmatic Charles Bruno’s fatalistic meeting with the conscientious Guy Haines. Bruno proposes a deal: helping each other by killing off those in their way. A struggle of personalities ensues, with cunning Bruno crushing the anxious Guy with both physical and emotional blackmail that will leave you feeling uncomfortable long after you leave the theatre. After killing Guy’s disreputable wife, Bruno insists he must return the favour by removing his overbearing father. Deviating somewhat from the film production, Warner manages to build towards a tense finale in which both characters are seemingly chained together by their recrimination and fate.
Unfortunately, Laurence Fox’s (Lewis) performance as Guy Haines is unconvincing. Fox lacks in theatrical skill and often struggles with his diction and an unconvincing American accent, particularly during lengthy monologues. He also seems unable to keep up his end of the intimacy and tension between the two lead characters, despite plenty of advances from Jack Huston. However, all this is more than compensated by Huston’s portrayal of the unstable Charles Bruno. Huston keeps the character grounded, or as grounded as a psychotic, alcoholic and systematically spoilt murderer could be, giving him charm and magnetism. Only in the final scenes, overcome with illness and desperation, does Huston’s performance develop into a convincing depiction of the manic. To sustain these levels of suspense is no easy task, yet Huston manages to leave you both rooting for Bruno and at the same time feeling a sense of physical revulsion at his character. The supporting cast also offer a great deal with Miranda Raison as Haines’s second wife, Imogen Stubbs as Bruno’s oblivious mother and Christian McKay’s as the unruffled private detective Gerard.
Although the show is visually stunning, and the majority of the scripting and acting impeccable, a lack of depth in the brashly acted central relationship means this show doesn’t look set to take over the West End just yet.