Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Strangers on a Train

Patricia Highsmith adapted by Craig Warner
Ambassador Theatre Group, Smith and Brant Theatricals
The Opera House, Manchester
05 February 2018 to 10 February 2018

Strangers on a Train can make any commuter a bit paranoid, raising the possibility that one of their travelling companions might turn out to be a psychopath. Architect Guy Haines (Jack Ashton) is angry that his promiscuous wife Miriam is blighting his professional ambitions. On a train journey, Haines meets a charming but psychopathic stranger, Charles Bruno (Chris Harper) who offers a novel solution – he will kill Miriam and, in return, Haines will murder Bruno's tight-fisted father; as the two men have no connection to each other it will be the perfect crime. Thinking the proposal is theoretical, Haines agrees, only to later discover that Bruno was deadly serious and insists that Haines live up to his part of the bargain, and going so far as to retain an item that could incriminate him.

The stage version of Strangers on a Train is something of a stylistic mixture. There are elements that fit perfectly in the thriller genre  - the jazzy three o’clock in the morning soundtrack by Ben and Max Ringham brings to mind the sweaty feel of a James M. Cain noir mystery. The ingenious design by David Woodhead splits the stage into a series of small sets, facilitating the swift change between scenes that is an essential component of thrillers.

Chris Harper’s Charles Bruno is reptilian and manipulative but also childish and needy, reflecting the confused motivation of a psychopath with a too-close relationship to his mother and an inability to acknowledge his sexual inclinations. The final scene, which brings the story full circle with a showdown in a railway yard, has a strong atmosphere.  

Yet adaptor Craig Warner seems uncertain how to deal with the character of Guy Haines, who is presented as a battered idealist forced into extreme actions by a stalker. This might reflect contemporary society, but efforts to suggest Haines has fallen from grace and might achieve redemption centre on his profession - he never shows any remorse for the death of his late wife. As Haines commits a major crime, it is hard to sympathise with the character even though he is suffering from harassment. A densely worded script slows down the action on a number of occasions. The opening scene, rather than being a tense cat-and-mouse confrontation between the characters or a potential Gay pick-up, becomes a debate on the moral nature of humanity.

The film of Strangers on a Train is a masterpiece of suspense. Perhaps director Anthony Banks felt obliged to try a different approach, or he just does not like thrillers, but the staging of the play is very pedestrian. Banks never resolves how to make scenes that are full of lengthy speeches tense or visually interesting. Authors such as Dostoevsky and Camus influenced Patricia Highsmith, who wrote the novel upon which the play is based, and Banks seems to be aspiring towards more highbrow forms of entertainment. Opera plays in the background as the tormented Guy Haines contemplates a murder, and, in the opening scene, he and Charles Bruno discuss the philosophy of Plato.

The stage version of Strangers on a Train is a handsome and respectful version of a classic but lacks some of the essential elements of a thriller. 

Reviewer: David Cunningham


Comment by Robert Beale

Yes, and it was a bit technically creaky on opening night, as the mobile panels of the set didn't always move when or quite where they should have, and the projected images sometimes rested on the wrong reflective surface. Perhaps that unnerved the cast, as they seemed to be going through the motions without great conviction. (The opera aria is 'O my beloved father' - a clever reference but perhaps too clever).

Comment by Diana Stenson

The author Patricia Highsmith published "Strangers on a Train" in 1950 and within a year Hitchcock produced his film -no surprise there - a perfect vehicle for the British Thriller King.  I saw it in my teens, was mesmerised - but not so much on opening night. 

As said the sets are neat, especially the railway carriage, and within three minutes of the journey the irritating, gobby inquisitive but captivating Charles Bruno is in full flow.  Chris Harper makes a riveting job of  his role as we begin to suspect all is not normal.  His mild travel mate, Guy, talented architect, is swiftly entrapped by his own gentlemanly responses.  Hannah Tointon is the likeable bubbly girlfriend, Anne, for Guy but she can lose her rag with effect and does, as she realises his desperate anxiety and loss of ambition.  From the start the action sustains a discomforting distant aura which indeed becomes reality when the last scene is played out in a steamy railway yard.  The end of the line?