Reviews West End & Central Published 23 November 2013

Strangers on a Train

Gielgud Theatre

A matter of life and death.

Tom Wicker

What exactly is the point of this adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 psychological thriller? It’s a mess of cinematic tropes, dumped with a clunk on the Gielgud stage, playing clumsily to Hitchcock rather than Highsmith. Well-judged performances from Miranda Raison and Christian McKay bring some class to the proceedings but this is a rattle-trap production.

The premise, of course, is an enduring one. On a train, architect Guy meets spoilt playboy Bruno, who offers to kill his cheating wife, Miriam – who’s refusing a divorce – if Guy will kill his father. As complete strangers, linked only by chance, they’d never be suspected. Guy jokingly agrees, assuming he isn’t serious. But then Miriam is strangled to death. And when Bruno starts stalking him, demanding that he keep his side of the bargain, Guy’s life falls apart.

In his classic 1951 film adaptation, Hitchcock folded the literary into the cinematic, crafting Highsmith’s tale into something new. This is brilliantly illustrated by the chilling tennis scene – not in the novel at all – that follows Miriam’s death. Among a sea of faces turning with the ball, the camera suddenly zooms in on one staring straight into the lens. We’re seeing Bruno from the perspective of a freaked-out Guy, who’s spotted him from the other side of the court. The film and the book exist on parallel tracks, telling their own story in their own distinctive language. That’s why it works, and why this production doesn’t.

There’s some lovely period detail and the monochrome sheen to everything is a nice touch. But it’s as if director Robert Allan Ackerman, whose background is in film, has forgotten that this is theatre. A blur of set changes in the first act – a slavish attempt to mimic the jump cuts of cinema – leaves the story feeling choppy and disconnected. And the concentration of much of the action centre-stage maroons other cast members on the outskirts, as if awaiting their call to set. It’s not until Guy desperately agrees to kill Bruno’s father that there’s any sense of the show embracing its theatrical potential. A foreboding, expressionistically lit staircase adds a brooding air of Gothic despair to a production generally lacking atmosphere.

It doesn’t help that the performances are all over the place. As mother-obsessed Bruno, Jack Huston chews up most of the train carriage in his early scenes, thankfully trimming back the ham later on as his character’s creepy fixation with Guy grows. As Elise, his mummy dearest, Imogen Stubbs floats around sounding like Marilyn Monroe with a mouthful of gravel. It’s over-the-top fun, but her Tennessee Williams-esque character seems to inhabit an entirely different play to Laurence Fox’s Guy.

It’s crucial to the story that we feel the horror of what Guy, a tidy-minded man, has been plunged into. The architecture of his life is swept away by the tidal wave of Bruno’s obsession with him. But here, Fox seems swamped by the stage. At times of supposed breaking point, his performance is so detached he barely seems to be there. He and Huston make for a jarring pairing, and moments which should blaze only fizzle.  A typically Hitchcockian soundtrack of taut violin strings screams “dramatic” but it rarely feels like it.

The second half is an improvement, partly because it benefits from more of Miranda Raison as Anne, Guy’s new wife. She brings wit, intelligence and – most importantly – believability to the role. Her performance is pitched perfectly for the era the show is riffing on and she makes us care about her fate as Bruno ingratiates himself into her home. The second act’s longer scenes also mean that the show flows better as Christian McKay’s private detective Gerard closes in on Guy and his role in the death of Bruno’s father. The dark edges of Craig Warner’s script feel sharper and cut more deeply.

There’s a strong undercurrent of social anxiety, with Bruno’s contempt for the working-class Gerard – a former employee of his father – coming back to bite him at the end. Lawless behaviour enabled and protected by wealth is no longer assured by the final scenes, with a relentless private detective as its nemesis. As his character ploughs through Guy and Bruno’s flimsy tissue of lies, McKay’s rich brew of brittle deference and seething anger is gripping. It stops this production from being a complete train wreck.

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Tom Wicker

Tom is a freelance writer and editor, based in London. He has acted in the past, but the stage is undoubtedly better off without him on it. As well as regularly contributing to Exeunt and OffWestEnd.com, he reviews for Time Out, has reviewed Broadway productions for The Telegraph. He has also written for The Guardian and the online world affairs magazine openDemocracy.

Strangers on a Train Show Info


Directed by Robert Allan Ackerman

Written by Craig Warner (based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith)

Cast includes Laurence Fox, Jack Huston, Myanna Buring, Imogen Stubbs, Miranda Raison, Alastair Natkiel, Tam Williams, Tim Ahern, Nick Malinowski, Christian McKay, Luke Beattie, Scott Sparrow.

Running Time 2 hrs 30 mins (including interval)

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