FringeReview UK 2018
This January-March tour revives the Gielgud 2014 production with Craig Warner’s adaptation of Highmsith’s 1950 novel. David Woodhead’s design and costumes show sliding doors of the set reveal a series of Edward Hopper interiors where Howard Hudson’s slat-window or glowing lighting irradiates guilt and tension. Ben and Max Ringham provide predictable noirish stylishness in music and effects. Duncan Maclean’s video-projection of houses fronting the set is a delight.
Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 debut novel Strangers on a Train might be a classic but it has at least three endings: Highsmith’s own, the famous Hitchcock 1951 film (which changes everything else too), and Craig Warner’s theatrical treatment being revived here. So if you think you know it, come and see.
This stylish if occasionally sluggish vehicle directed by Anthony Banks boasts at least one outstanding performance and no weak links. ATG, the house team who brought Gaslight last year, have surpassed themselves here.
If you think too that you’ve wandered into a Tate show of Twentieth Century American art, then you’ve also happened on a highlight, mastered by David Woodhead’s design and costumes. To a screen of distressed Jasper Johns flag (an exhibition just ended at the RA) blanched by Jackson Pollock’s blue-grey lariat splashes, the sliding doors of the set reveal a series of Edward Hopper interiors where Howard Hudson’s slat-window or glowing lighting irradiates guilt and tension like a blob of radium: everyone’s jumpy around it. So we don’t miss the trope, the programme’s stuffed with Hoppers.
The denouement recalls a moment in the recent Chichester/NT revival of Chekhov’s Plotonov: train-lights looming straight ahead. Apart from sight-lines on stalls-ends it’s both a masterclass and story-board on its own. Ben and Max Ringham provide predictable noirish stylishness in music and effects. Duncan Maclean’s video-projection of houses fronting the set is a delight.
A panel slides to a sleek train interior, one man the hyena-laughing Charles Bruno (Chris Harper fresh from his grooming avatar in Coronation Street) hitting on stolid architect Guy Haines (Jack Ashton) busy reading Plato’s Symposium: a disquisition on love. No wonder there. Haines’ redhead wife Miriam is brazenly unfaithful; but he’s already taken a mistress Anne Faulkner (Hannah Tointon) who’s the helpmeet-marrying sort. If only. Which is where Bruno strikes. His controlling paterfamilias starves him of funds. Why not swap murders?
The bargain Haines hasn’t really made is struck. Poor good-time Miriam is dispatched in graphically sexualised detail by Bruno who now blackmails Haines into his half; sex-and-death possession of Haines by proxy is creepily suggested by Bruno, about Anne too.
Ashton’s boxed in literally (the interior reveals are all superb boxings-in) as even his wedding to Anne’s invaded by harmless histrionic Bruno who breaks their separation pact, such as it was. So when again offstage Bruno’s father is dispatched, the Crime-and-Punishment template seems set up as the Bruno family protector Arthur Gerard starts connecting. But neither Gerard nor Anne here reflect convention.
Bruno’s intrusions provoke nemesis. Having set up perfect murders, it’s he who insists on dogging Haines with whom he’s besotted, partly through colloquies with Anne. He seems intent on becoming the third child-like person in a relationship rather like that in Rebel Without a Cause. Though much darker. He’s in fact all Summer-and-Smoke about his southern-belle mother, Helen Anderson’s smoky resigned Elsie Bruno, accompanied by Carmen or ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Gianni Schicchi – curiously a Puccini with a happy ending.
Every classic homoerotic trait is paraded and Harper’s superlative skill is keeping this side of icky-incredible. He’s spectacular in both tonal pitch and the yaw of his physical movement. Harper refuses to swerve from the darkness he’s recently portrayed on TV. It’s courageous and paradoxically ground-breaking. It’d be thrilling to see him in other stage roles.
By contrast Ashton’s character projects a kind of darkness visible, a moody brooder whose pulsating angst then guilt doesn’t gift nearly as much fun; yet Ashton morally bulks and matches Harper’s star-turn with sullen furies and shuddering bewilderment.
John Middleton’s Gerard furnishes another TV name in a grainy mid-century morality-play of one. Warner’s body-swerved his morality slightly, and done something too to Anne. Tointon’s credible, whether laughing or dead still. The second half depends much on what these two, and Anderson’s fracturing mother Elsie, will make of unravelment.
There’s a slightly less credible sequence, just after the extraordinary Faustian moment when Haines burns an incriminating letter and his Mephistopholean other half appears. That much is magnificent. But loyal colleague Frank Myers (Sandy Batchelor) appearing to inform Haines that scandal is stymying him makes Myers seem momentarily an understudy of Bruno, a lesser devil if you like. Batchelor is otherwise like all the cast pitch-perfect and his accent too never slips. Owen Findlay’s Robert Treacher is likewise believable as Best Man.
There are also longeurs: scenes where Tointon’s Anne, wetted with booze is hung out to dry in etiolated exchanges with Harper and Ashton. The first half might seem a tad long but seems as relentless as the tread up a predestined set of stairs. With a little pick-up in those second-act drink exchanges, perhaps a nip or two, this production should reach anyone who’s curious about Warner’s rather different outcome, which Highsmith herself, writing later, might well have approved of; I prefer it too. And on the way we’re treated to a friction-free ride through American art and a stunning denouement in an extinct train yard.