Strangers on a Train (Richmond Theatre)

Strangers on a Train (Richmond Theatre, until February 24th)

Mystery and suspense evaporate quickly in an uneven production of the classic thriller Strangers on a Train, currently on a national tour.

Most people will go along to see the play with Alfred Hitchcock’s stunning 1951 film at the forefront of their minds – it remains the best version of Patricia Highsmith’s gripping novel there is – but Craig Warner’s play takes the drama back to the novel’s psychological level, dealing with the relationships between the characters and the very personal effect the unfolding action has on each player.

A tour had audiences on the edge of their seats back in 2006, then a memorable West End production five years ago in monochrome (which tried to give a feel of the movie on a revolving stage) managed to keep the thrills very much alive. This new tour, directed by Anthony Banks, contains two strong pivotal performances but has as much tension as a group of gricers trainspotting at a rural station.

There is an incredible amount of talk in this play and not nearly enough happening to hold the interest. Indeed, some of the action in previous productions (a key death, for example) has been omitted in favour of a rather dull description. Considering this isn’t a monochrome version, it has been made incredibly grey.

David Woodhead’s functional set design is a bit like a Chinese puzzle box, with sliding panels imaginatively allowing it to serve as everything from a train compartment to various houses, a bar, and a rail yard but scene changes are clunky and the bangs and crashes going on while a scene is in progress are distracting.

The opening is strong, as the fateful random meeting of two men on a train sets a series of unfortunate events in motion. Yet as the evening progresses it seems more and more as though the production is just trundling into a siding – though, happily, it never actually goes off the rails.

Jack Ashton creates a sympathetic Guy Haines, the mild-mannered architect who is talked into “exchanging murders” to avoid description. He is very much the innocent drawn into a frightening web of passion, lies, and murder, and descends into a crumbling shadow of his former self before our eyes after the chance encounter becomes something unexpectedly terrible and sinister.

As Charles Bruno Chris Harper is a fey, manipulative and amoral stalker, a creepy performance that is chillingly believable in spite of the character’s melodramatic tendency. The script never makes it too clear why, having meticulously planned two murders based on the fact that the men are strangers to each other, he then inveigles himself so obviously into the lives of Haines and his new wife (a somewhat thankless role for Hannah Tointon)  but it is a good portrayal of a camp, alcoholic and amoral mummy’s boy growing increasingly scary as each scene passes with mounting menace. Much is made of the homoerotic link between the two men, with Harper becoming almost manically obsessed with his unwilling partner in crime.

The other performers seem to have less than ever to do in this production, often reduced to being either calm or hysterical, and there are some bewilderingly strange and diverting goings-on in a couple of scenes where it looks for all the world as though the lesser cast members have taken bets on how best to steal scenes. However, John Middleton makes the most of his private eye who works out the truth super-fast in the second act, while Helen Anderson hits the mark as Bruno’s doting mother.

Were it not for the two engaging central performances this Strangers on a Train would be less interesting than perusing Bradshaw’s for a long weekend, offering as much nourishment as an out of date British Rail sandwich.

David Guest 

Picture, Helen Maybanks