Show: Strangers on a Train
Venue: Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Date: 25th January 2018
Director: Anthony Banks
Writer: Craig Warner (based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith)
Cast: Chris Harper (Charles Bruno), Jack Ashton (Guy Haines), Hannah Tointon (Anne Faulkner), John Middleton (Arthur Gerard) and Helen Anderson (Elsie Bruno)
Another show seen, and another case of mixed feelings. Having very recently read the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name that inspired the play, the source material was fresh in my mind. For better or worse, this meant every alteration in tone and plot felt heightened, and it has to be said there were a fair few.
I shall of course avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say the ending was drastically altered, completely changing the lasting impression of the story. It’s not to say I don’t understand the need to make changes from time-to-time in a screen or stage adaptation, nor is it to say I didn’t like the climax of the play (it was, in fact, the most engaging part of the entire show), it’s just that, as a bookworm, I always feel a sense of loyalty to the original narrative, and in this particular case, couldn’t understand why such drastic changes were deemed necessary.
The biggest effect of the altered outcome was to move away from the sinister and melancholic tone of the novel, and this is characteristic of the play as a whole, I’d say. There seemed to have been a conscious effort to play up the more humorous and camp side of the story, transforming it into something of a black comedy, rather than a psychological suspense. Again, it’s not that this didn’t work and still make for an interesting dynamic, it’s just not what it felt the show could or should have been.
This brings me to the crux of my problem with the play, which is that for something that is technically classed as a thriller, it just wasn’t very thrilling. The whole concept of the story is that two men meet by chance and agree to exchange murders on behalf of the other, so it’s not much of a spoiler to say that murders do indeed occur. The trouble is, neither are shown on stage in this version of the story. To omit the two scenes that offer the greatest moments of drama and menace felt largely to the detriment of the tone Highsmith originally set out to achieve.
The cast is made up of a number of familiar faces from British TV. In terms of the performances, Chris Harper’s turn as the unhinged Charles Bruno was easily the standout. His emphasis on the eccentric side of the character really helped to heighten the homoerotic undertone between the two main characters, which served in turn to bring home the theme of obsession, and added another layer to Bruno’s repeatedly stated desires to ‘live’ and ‘be free’. His spiral into madness and the grips of alcoholism were also captured very well. As for the others, Middleton gave a good performance but was given so little to do it couldn’t leave much of an impression; Tointon was fine if a little shrill at times in her affected American accent; Anderson was good as Bruno’s sickly-sweet and overly appeasing mother, and Ashton was perfectly adequate, though didn’t really sell the torture and anguish of being drawn in by Bruno, meaning that all but Harper felt a little bland by comparison.
Odd as it might sound to say, the real stars of the show were the staging and set design, which were easily some of the most ingenious, inventive and seamless I’ve ever seen. Cleverly utilising a series of sliding panels and projections, it allowed the narrative to flow uninterrupted and all décor changes to take place unseen by the audience. It’s hard to explain, and I’m probably not doing it justice, but it was so well engineered and very impressive visually.
Overall, it’s another show I’m glad to have seen, and one that perhaps I would have enjoyed more had I not felt it didn’t manage to capture the mood of the original story. Clever word-play and extended discussions on the psychology of murder are indeed interesting and thought-provoking, but are simply not enough to grip an audience for the best part of two and a half hours without being balanced out by some much-needed tension and release; more akin to what most crime enthusiasts would normally expect from such a show.