Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Theatre review: Strangers on a Train

"Strangers on a train, exchanging glances. Wondering, on a train, what were the chances..." Actually I think I might have entirely the wrong song stuck in my head. Laurence Fox and Jack Huston certainly don't end up sharing love before the night is through, although given the play opens with the latter getting up close to the former before inviting him back to his private cabin to ply him with alcohol, it does look on the cards for a bit. Guy Haynes (Fox) is an architect with a wife who won't grant him the divorce he wants, Charles Bruno (Huston) a drunken son of millionaires, who'd quite like to see his father dead so he can get his hands on the cash. Bruno proposes that the two murder each other's nemeses, providing not only an alibi but also no known connection to the killer. Guy dismisses the man as a crank but soon finds himself with a dead ex-wife, and Bruno demanding he keep his end of the bargain.

The publicity announces that Craig Warner's is a new adaptation from Patricia Highsmith's book rather than from the Hitchcock film; a distinction that seems pointless the moment the show begins and it becomes obvious everything from the movie-style credits on the posters and the title projected onto the curtain, to the monochrome design and the (rather crackly-sounding - I guess the budget didn't stretch to remastering it) soundtrack, is meant to evoke the black-and-white film.

The opening scenes on the train itself actually seem quite promising, with a sense of intrigue building up alongside the carefully differentiated lead characters. But once the protagonists are back on solid ground the revolve keeps spinning, with quickly diminishing returns. The revolve is used to get us through the non-stop changes of location, the scenes being very short, like in the film this claims not to be based on.

What's a shame is that Tim Goodchild's designs are actually very well realised, providing some excellent visuals in Tim Lutkin's moody lighting and with the backstage crew achieving some huge, slick changes even while the revolve is in mid-spin. But the movement's both too constant to allow any scene to breathe, and not fast enough to let the action hold onto any momentum between scenes. If your purpose is to recreate the exact dynamics of a film on stage, the tools Robert Allan Ackerman's production has at its disposal are probably the best you could have but it just doesn't work when put together - and really, what's the point? If you want to watch a film, "watching a film" seems like the obvious course of action. "Clumsy, expensive attempt to put a film on a stage" wasn't really an option that jumped out at me.

Fox and Huston have a strong supporting cast behind them, including MyAnna Buring (as opposed to YourAnna Buring) as Guy's doomed first wife and Miranda Raison as her replacement, fated to become the object of Bruno's obsession. Tam Williams is Guy's business partner and Bruno has a creepily Oedipal relationship (they seem to be all the rage at the moment) with Imogen Stubbs as his mother Elsie. Stubbs' husky voice sounds like it was left behind by Kathleen Turner when she was at this theatre a few years ago, (back when she also forgot her vest,) and there's more than a suggestion that Bruno doesn't want his father out of the way so much for the cash as to get his mother to himself. But they're all fighting against an entirely misconceived production, a thriller that fails to be even remotely thrilling - indeed it winds up being a crushingly boring evening.

Strangers on a Train by Craig Warner, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, is booking until the 22nd of February at the Gielgud Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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