Image © Helen Maybanks
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN
Opera House, Manchester
Until Saturday 10th February, 2018
Famously adapted for the screen by the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, back in 1951, Patricia Highsmith’s brilliantly crafted psychological thriller – and debut novel – Strangers on a Train, has now been transposed to the stage in a fairly faithful adaptation courtesy of Craig Warner, though despite an assured cast, and some intriguing creative elements, Anthony Banks’ largely uninspired touring production suffers considerably from poor staging, a disregard for sight lines and a consistently problematic set that wouldn’t look out of place in The Play That Goes Wrong.
The actions of the play stems from the fateful meeting of two ‘strangers’ – Charles Bruno and Guy Haines – who cross paths on a train journey across the US. During their initial conversation it comes to light that both have reason to wish someone very close to them dead, and when the persuasive Bruno suggests they should swap murders to avoid suspicion the upstanding Haines refuses, but it sets into motion a chain of dark events.
Taken directly from the Highsmith original, and not the Hitchcock film, Warner’s adaptation is a much more intimate and suffocating one than fans of the film might expect, taking away much of the suspense and action and instead focusing principally on the psychological elements of the piece and the gradual unravelling of its two principal characters. Though given its primary focus on those psychological aspects, Warner’s script feels rather restrained, never penetrating deep enough into the minds of its two murderers, and never exploring exactly why Haines is ultimately driven to kill.
Chris Harper does excellent work as the manipulative and utterly unhinged Bruno, ensuring a role that could quite easily verge into parody remains chillingly believable, and he has an equal match in Jack Ashton as contrasting anti-hero Haines, the successful architect unwittingly caught in the psychotic Bruno’s web of murder and blackmail. John Middleton brings experience to the role of private detective Arthur Gerard, but there isn’t a great deal for him to do, and many of his lines and speeches are unfortunately rattled through at breakneck pace.
David Woodhead’s split-level, sliding-panel set initially seems to be a rather clever premise, and of course should remain that way, but with a number of the panels falling off their rollers, failing to close, closing on actors during scenes and exposing parts of the backstage areas, it is most definitely a case of ‘seemed a good idea at the time, and causes problem after problem throughout, giving the production an amateurish feel.
Banks’ direction and staging is bland and lacks pace, failing to take sight lines into account during a number of the scenes, with actors obstructed by scenery and set panels and blocked for large portions of the side stalls.
Given the acclaim that met the original 2013 west end production – a slick, stylish film-noir style production from director Robert Allan Ackerman – it is a real shame that this touring version doesn’t capture the style and quality of the original, and a sturdy and experienced cast deserve a much better production.
Running Time: 2 hours and 15-minutes (approx.), including one 20-minute interval.
Final Performance at the Opera House, Manchester: Saturday 10th February, 2018
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