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Strangers on a Train

by on 20 February 2018

Intense, Intimate and Intriguing

Strangers on a Train

by Craig Warner, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith

ATG co-production with Smith and Brant Theatricals
at Richmond Theatre until 24th February, then on tour until 24th March

Review by Mark Aspen
Life is a journey, but take care who your travelling companions are, especially if you travel by train … or chariot. Socrates’ Chariot Allegory is a metaphor of the human mind being pulled by a white horse and black horse, by good or by evil. In Patricia Highsmith’s novel Strangers on a Train, the same metaphor opens a discussion between two men who have never met before. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates’ discussion with Phaedrus takes place walking on the shore of a lake. In Highsmith’s story, the stranger’s discussions take place on a train in the early 1950’s travelling west across America towards Santa Fe. Highsmith takes the metaphor to where Plato could not have dreamt of, expanding the Chariot Allegory to ask the question, who is holding the reins?
In a revival of Craig Warner’s 2013 stage adaptation of Strangers on a Train, the journey that director Anthony Banks takes us on in the production now running at Richmond Theatre becomes an intense, intimate and intriguing probing of the human psyche.

On the long train journey, the restless Charles Bruno strikes up an animated conversation with the highly successful architect Guy Haines, who at first just wants to catch up on his reading, a paperback version of The Phaedrus as it turns out. Very rapidly though, Haines finds himself drawn into a conversation about the duality of the mind, and soon Bruno is acting as an intrusive brother-confessor to Haines, who questions his wife’s fidelity and reveals that he intends to divorce her, so he can marry his mistress, Anne. Suddenly Bruno comes up with an idea, which Haines at first thinks is just a bit of banter: he’ll kill Haines’ wife if in turn Haines kills Bruno’s father, whom he loathes. But Bruno persists, asserting that it is the perfect double crime, because neither of them has an apparent motive, and they are not going to meet again, are they? They are just strangers on a train.

The set for a stage play of Strangers on a Train needs to convey both the wide vastness of the American train journey and the intimate setting of a taut psychological drama. Moreover there are many and varied scene changes, an unenviable challenge for a set designer, but one which David Woodhead and his colleagues have met with inventive brilliance. Sliding or retreating panels open or close windows on the action, such that intimacy is maintained without losing the full stage, and simultaneous scenes can also be depicted. This forms an intricate canvas on which lighting designer Howard Hudson and projection and video designer Duncan McLean paint inventive and imaginative pictures, smacking of an Edward Hopper painting. The overall effect is a thrilling combination that hints both at the comic-dynamic style of the strip cartoon with its storybook progression, and at the son-et-lumière beloved by custodians of French historic buildings. And the son aspects are brilliantly covered by the sound and music design of Ben and Max Ringham, ranging from the Doppler-effective passing express trains to the insightful choice of the musicscape.
The dramatisation of the duality of human nature is in vogue at present. Across the river, the tour Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has moved on from Kingston, just as Strangers on a Train follows on its heels. Both Bruno and Haines are Jekyll-and-Hyde characters, but from Bruno the Hyde springs all too readily, whereas Hyde is wrenched from Haines under the relentless harassment of Bruno.
You see, Charles Bruno keeps his side of the bargain with psychopathic coolness, killing Haines’ wife Miriam without remorse. However, in his recounting of the strangling of Miriam, his cold precision is countered by a warped thrill in its detailed description and his declaration that “death is only one more adventure untried”. Chris Harper excels in the role of Bruno, accurately portraying the manipulative control that his character exerts, an enigma that others find attractive, even in his frequent drunken state. Harper’s physicality expresses the startling athleticism and sudden movements of Bruno’s unhinged mind.

Equally the physicality of Jack Ashton revels that unbearable tension that builds in Haines’ mind. In this role, Ashton also gives an exemplary performance, as the spirit is sucked away from him as he is coerced into keeping his side of the bargain with Bruno. Appalled by his, albeit despised, wife’s murder, he cannot contemplate killing the innocent father of the resentful Bruno. By a gradual attrition, the constant phone calls, the stalking, the letters to his work colleagues, his clients and his fiancée, Haines is blackmailed into carrying out the deed. Haines’ huge emotional journey is precisely portrayed by Ashton in his delivery and his body language, halted advances towards Bruno, beginnings of a rolling of the sleeves, little gestures of a supressed fury.
Eventually Haines succumbs to the pressure, and we see him, thought a gap in the façade of Bruno’s family home, slowly mounting a staircase to the father’s room, gun in hand. The movement is deliberate, almost slow-motion, and set to Puccini’s sublime music, “O Mio Babbino Caro” (O, my beloved papa) from Gianni Schicchi. Nothing explicit, a crescendo of the music as the light fades. What a touching choice from the music design of the Ringham brothers, especially when you listen to the closing words of the aria, “Mi struggo e mi tormento … pietà, pietà!” (I grieve, I am in torment … have pity on me!). Brilliant!

There is biting irony in the choice of music. When alone, Bruno sings the habanera from Bizet’s Carmen, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle …” (Love is a defiant bird), and when he is with his doting mother Elsie Bruno, his head on her lap, she sings the Victorian parlour song, Beautiful Dreamer to him.

There is an edgy ambiguity in Bruno’s relationship with his mother. It is fuelled by Bruno’s resentment of his father, whom he depends on financially. Bruno’s oedipal reaction to her doting nature seems to go unrecognised by Elsie, even as she doles out her smother-love. Helen Anderson’s performance has a Tennessee Williams feel to it, the self- and son- indulgent nature coming sharply across, although she seeks to cling to her vanity.
Anne Faulkner’s relationship to Haines progress from mistress, to fiancée, to wife, even as, much to Anne’s consternation, his spirit disintegrates. She has an intuitive perception that something is badly wrong, but remains oblivious to Bruno’s interventions, even when he gate-crashes their wedding reception. Hannah Tointon, in the role of Anne, skilfully balances innocence and loyalty with disquiet and doubt.

As Bruno creepily caresses Anne’s neck while Haines is away, we are reminded of his recollection of Miriam’s strangulation, while we see yet another of the sublimated sexual impulses in Bruno’s perverted mind; repressed urges towards Anne, towards his mother, towards Haines himself, and towards violent and murderous assault.
However Haines is subsumed into the quagmire of Bruno’s charisma, in spite of the concerns of friends and colleagues. His successful career as an celebrated architect crumbles: his award-winning golf course in Palm Springs becomes too much associated in his mind with his late wife; he is passed by for the design of an office tower in New York when his client gets an anonymous letter from Bruno; and he loses the will to accept a commission that would fulfil his life-long dream of building a bridge, “white, with a span like an angel’s wings”. He declines prestigious projects, in spite of the attempts of his architectural assistant, Frank Myers, to bolster his failing confidence and to divert Bruno’s negativity. Sandy Batchelor brings a chirpy spark to the role of Frank, while Owen Findley brings a chumminess and fidelity to the part of Robert Treacher, a long-standing friend and one-time fellow student of Bruno’s, who pulls out all the stops to get him the white bridge contract.
The suspicions of Arthur Gerrard, a retired private investigator and old friend of Bruno’s father, lead to the unravelling of Bruno’s carefully laid plot. His pro-bono detective work and tenacity uncovers all. John Middleton’s rock-solid performance as the dogged Gerrard speaks of the intelligence, maturity and wisdom of the character. Gerrard decides that, since his private status puts him under no obligations to report to the authorities, he will do nothing, as both men have, and will suffer. His abandonment by his mother is a fate worse than death, and indeed proves fatal, for the now drink-besozzled Bruno, whereas Haines is now totally broken in resolve and riddled with guilt. Maybe Anne will bring him redemption, but who knows?
None of Highsmith’s stories has a happy ending, or any full resolution, which makes them, I believe, more interesting and more credible. Certainly, stage adaptations put them on a par with the bleak realism of Russian dramatists such as Gorky or Ostrovsky. Strangers on a Train is no exception, but its effect is intellectually satisfying in a way that the ordinary thriller could not be. On press night, an elderly lady sitting behind me, said “it’s not a proper thriller, because you know who did it right at the beginning”. Agreed, it is not a whodunit, not even a why-dunit, but more of an if-dunit: from the start of the play, you never know if, if, the fiendish pact will be fulfilled. That is why it is so gripping.
The destination is not the goal … the journey is. Never speak to strangers.

Mark Aspen
February 2018

Photography by RET

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