Strangers On A Train: Theatre review

3.00

Gielgud Theatre, London

Fans of Hitchcock's superb 1951 movie are in for something of a surprise if they fetch up at this show expecting a close screen-to-stage transposition. The adaptor, Craig Warner, has reworked the material by going back to Patricia Highsmith's 1950 novel, which is in certain crucial respects very different, and by adding elements of his own.  Robert Allan Ackerman's assured and fluid production is, nonetheless, “noir”-ish in an ostentatiously filmic fashion, as though it were intent on offering a night out at the theatre and a trip to the cinema combined.

The ingenious basic premise remains sacrosanct. In a seemingly chance meeting on a train, the pushy and insinuating Charles Bruno proposes a murder-swap to Guy Haines: he will bump off Guy's unfaithful wife, if Guy will agree to kill Bruno's hated father. Watertight alibis; no connection between murderer and victim – the perfect criss-cross crime. Except that when Bruno performs his side of what was never a real bargain, it exposes the appalled Guy to a nightmare of blackmail and stalking. 

There's coded homosexuality in the movie where Robert Walker's brilliantly insidious Bruno is like Guy's diabolical alter ego. Here the gay dimension is more spelt out.  Laurence Fox's disappointingly vapid and un-American-sounding Guy is first discovered reading Plato and is intrigued enough by this total stranger to join him in his private compartment. Jack Huston is excellent as Bruno – the surface manner of the moustachioed, self-amusedly perverse playboy who despises mediocrity concealing less and less the disturbed, whisky-sodden neediness of his infatuation with Guy. His near-incestuously possessive mother (wittily drawn by Imogen Stubbs) is not wrong to suspect that he has found someone new.

Spoiler alert: in this version, as in the novel, Guy is hounded into killing the father and there is a wonderfully queasy sequence here when, on the same fateful staircase, the aftermath of the deed morphs into the murderer's high-society wedding to Miranda Raison's elegant Anne. The segue horribly emphasises the unstable foundation for this happiness, as does Bruno's sudden sick-joke appearance as an uninvited guest – the first of his many attempts to form a third in their union. The palette of the production – designed by Tim Goodchild and costumed by Dona Granata – is black, white and gray, as in an old movie, with Bruno's odd-man-out isolation highlighted by costumes that are like a photographic negative of the norm. 

Both halves open with footage of an onrushing train and the proceedings elapse seamlessly thanks to a revolve that works overtime as it whisks us from set to set and to Peter Wilms's splendid projections that can conjure up a fairground carousel or fireworks or give us the illusion that we are travelling through a landscape watched from a train window. But there's very little that properly suspenseful – and nothing to compare with the nerve-racking tennis match or Bruno's pervy pursuit of his prey in the movie.  The adaptation is impressive, on its own terms, and I applaud Warner for taking the emotional logic of the pact to a climactic extreme. You may emerge though with your admiration for Hitchcock redoubled.

To 22 February; 0844 482 5130

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