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STRANGERS ON A TRAIN – Gielgud Theatre, London.

strangers on a trainWith David Suchet hanging up his waxed moustache, the best place to get your whodunit kicks is now the West End, either in form of genuine thriller The Woman in Black or glorious movie pastiche The 39 Steps. Adding to their number is this engrossing adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel, and if it sometimes falls between the two stools, it’s still deliciously dark entertainment.

Less a ‘whodunit’ than a ‘whydunit’, Highsmith’s premise is ingeniously simple. Aspiring architect Guy meets laconic, alcoholic playboy Bruno on a train, and the strangers share their problems – Guy has a destructive, serially unfaithful wife, Bruno a financially controlling father. The latter proffers the perfect solution: they commit each other’s murders, and the police will never suspect a connection between them. Guy demurs, but, crucially, in such a way that Bruno reads an implicit agreement and eagerly carries out his share of the bargain.

This violent act is the highpoint of a production with strikingly stylish visual language, as Miriam (MyAnna Buring, dynamic as the slyly girlish Southern belle in a sadly brief appearance) meets her grisly end juxtaposed with a cosy, old-fashioned fairground. That Bruno takes quasi-sexual enjoyment in his murder of a woman both childlike and mother-to-be, and, when recounting it to Guy, also detached professional pride, only adds to its creeping, unshakeable horror.

The thematic strand of innocence defiled, and traditional roles of parent, child, spouse and lover subverted, recurs frequently, as Bruno’s chilling amorality infects everyone around him. This honours the dark undertones of Highsmith’s novel, which reflected both her own tormented sexual confusion and the climate of the time in viewing homosexuality as part of a moral decay that threatened to undermine society. There’s also a particularly vile misogyny in Bruno’s view that the adulterous Miriam doesn’t deserve to live.

Unfortunately, Robert Allan Ackerman’s production is too busy to dwell on anything for long. No sooner have we glimpsed Guy’s mental torment during Bruno’s grim determination to force him into an equally damning act than Tim Goodchild’s magic revolve has whisked us away to another time and place via the efforts of a veritable army of stage hands. It’s a technical tour de force, but leaves the audience suffering from whiplash, and supporting characters like Miranda Raison’s cool socialite and Christian McKay’s dogged P.I. get short shrift.

It’s also jarring tonally, switching between psychological drama and muddled detective story before launching into Gothic melodrama with histrionics that would make Tennessee Williams blush. As Bruno’s mother, a towering, scenery-chewing Imogen Stubbs filters Norma Desmond through a breathy Monroe impression, and her semi-incestuous relationship with her son threatens to tip over into riotous black comedy.

However, it’s possible she’s just overcompensating in a show that takes its noir brief too literally by plunging everything into shadow and burying the cast in gleaming period-fetish sets and oppressive projections. It’s certainly atmospheric, but without the aid of close-ups, at times the real suspense comes from trying to spot the actors amidst the gloom. The overblown score is also problematic, leading one to wonder when the black-hatted villain will appear to tie the wailing damsel to the train tracks.

Creating a commanding performance in these conditions is a tall order, but one of the central pair manages it magnificently. Jack Huston’s Bruno is a beguiling, venal stalker, his debonair charm battling needy infatuation and ferociously petulant sociopathic tendencies. He’s the very embodiment of the cited Platonic conflict between the two horses driving the chariot of the soul: one ‘noble and of noble breed’, the other tempting us to indulge in our most wicked appetites.

Sadly, Huston has little to play against, as Fox’s Guy is not so much inscrutable as largely absent. Craig Warner’s adaptation retains Highsmith’s intriguing shades of grey (where Hitchcock’s protagonist fought to retain his principles, hers surrenders to the Faustian pact), but Fox fails to take advantage in a leaden performance with unconvincing accent. What might this have been in the hands of a skilled stage actor capable of evoking a raging hinterland?

Strangers on a Train lacks the theatrical nous of The 39 Steps, which dreams up a rich world with just four actors and a handful of props, and in reaching for a cinematic goal, forgets what Theatre does best: complex, emotionally resonant exploration and searing connection with an audience. This is still a grippingly nasty, extravagantly realised drama, but it never shakes off the sense that it’s yearning to escape its medium.

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Reviewed 21/11/13/

By Marianka Swain

2nd Nov 2013 – 22nd Feb 2014
Gielgud Theatre, London, W1D.

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