You know that situation when you have an innocent conversation with a stranger, on a train, and then you end up in a web of deceit, blackmail and psychological torment…
Murder or don’t murder but be framed for murder anyway. This is the choice facing architect Guy Haines as he makes the acquaintance of the charismatic but alcoholic playboy Charles Bruno on a train travelling from New York to Texas. Over a tot or two, Haines confesses that he wishes to divorce his unfaithful wife Miriam, who is making life complicated for him. Our sympathy for him wanes a little when we discover he too is unfaithful with a loyal mistress Anne. Bruno jokingly proposes that he murders Miriam, and Haines murders Bruno’s hated father. Except Bruno isn’t joking, offs Miriam and then torments Haines until he finally upholds his end of the deal.
The second half of the play sees Bruno involving himself more and more in Haines and his new bride’s life, turning up at their wedding, pretending to be an old pal, and driving Haines to despair. Arthur Gerard, a private investigator played by Emmerdale’s John Middleton, puts the clues together, tracks down Guy and Anne Haines and eventually confronts Bruno about his part in his father’s murder. Both men are dealing with the demons created by their deeds in their own way; Haines by finally confessing all to his new wife, and Bruno, staring at life through the bottom of a scotch bottle. It’s not a happy ending.
The Academy-award winning film version of Strangers on a Train was famously directed by Alfred Hitchcock; however the stage version remains more faithful to Patricia Highsmith’s 1950s novel which is better suited to the theatre. Indeed, an impressive single sliding set manages to incorporate a train carriage, a holiday balcony, the Bruno mansion, Haines small apartment, a newly-built marital home, and an architects office with no disruption to the flow of the story. It’s a seamless production, with the small set finally opening up to reveal the entire stage for the final scene.
It’s certainly no laugh-out-loud, all singing, all dancing show. There is no let-up in the tension as the audience sit on the edge of their seats to find out which of the protagonists will unravel first. There is a dark wit running through, and Chris Harper plays Bruno’s drunken scenes particularly well. There is no doubt that Harper’s is the standout performance, playing a scheming and manipulative character who shouldn’t be likeable in any way yet exudes enough charisma to captivate the audience. Jack Ashton plays Haines as a more subtle character, although his apparent lack of reaction to his wife’s unfortunate death should set anyone’s mind whirring about the part he may have played – unwittingly or not. You can see the torment and despair gnawing away at Haines though before he reciprocates, when Bruno threatens his relationship, his career and his freedom; and afterwards, when he is unable to extricate Bruno from their life.
It all moves a little abruptly towards the end, with Ashley from Emmerdale putting two and two together with some neat but obvious tropes (for example, why describe the drinking flask at the start of the play if it’s not going to be a crucial plot point…) but then letting Haines and Bruno deal with the aftermath of their actions in a life of eternal guilt and damnation rather than handing them over to the cops. The final scene felt like it was lacking something a little more dramatic, the train’s headlights piercing through the smoke deserved something which would elicit a gasp from the audience, but the slightly lacklustre ending certainly didn’t take anything away from the rest of the story or the performances of the cast.
Strangers on a Train’s run in Birmingham has now come to an end, but you can still catch the UK tour at the following venues:
5 – 10 February: Opera House, Manchester
12 – 17 February: New Victoria Theatre, Woking
19 – 24 February: Richmond Theatre, Richmond
26 February – 3 March: Arts Theatre, Cambridge
5 – 10 March: Grand Opera House, York
19 – 24 March: Aylesbury Waterside Theatre
27 – 31 March: New Theatre, Cardiff
All Press Photos were supplied by The Ambassador Theatre Group Limited and used with their permission.