Strangers on a Train – Gielgud Theatre

It’s a brilliant premise; two strangers meet on a train, exchange stories and discuss swapping murders to fool the police. One man, Charles Bruno, takes the conversation seriously, disposing of Miriam, the unfaithful and inconvenient wife of architect Guy Haines. Guy, however, assumed it was a drunken nonsense and much of the story involves the pressure on him to uphold his end of the bargain. Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel and the superb Hitchcock film, this play has fantastic source material, yet somehow fails to live up to either.

Let me first say that the stage design is pretty spectacular; the creation of the various settings from a 50s train carriage to New York apartments, and especially the Metcalf merry-go-round are amazing. There’s some brilliant use of video creating the sense of a moving train, and projecting various motifs which is unlike anything else I’ve seen. The acting is pretty decent as well; Laurence Fox does well as the crumbling Haines, an everyman unravelling as events overtake him, whilst Imogen Stubbs has a nice role as a glamorous and fey Mrs Bruno. Jack Huston is an eccentric and obsessive Bruno, although I would have liked a bit of menace in his performance. It’s hard to believe Haines would feel threatened and not dismiss him as a crank. You can’t help but compare with Robert Walker’s perfectly pitched and disturbing film performance.

The real problem here is the script; the first half bounces from scene to scene without any proper time to understand the characters, their motivation and the risks they take; the second act needs a red pen through a number of extraneous scenes that add nothing to the plot and just delay what could be a much tighter conclusion. This play needs to be taken away for a few weeks, rewritten and edited before coming back for another try. First, they need to decide whether it’s paying homage to Highsmith or Hitchcock – at the moment it’s veering unsuccessfully between the two and ends up being a bit of mess character-wise.

Most important of all is the scene in the train, which is where this play begins, but it fell flat. They messed this up and it has ramifications for the rest of the play. It should be the crux of the drama, the Faustian pact is set; whether or not the characters know it at the time, their lives change from this point and the audience, at least, should feel the importance of that moment. So, it needs to be longer; we need to know who these men are, the extent of their disappointments, and why on earth the sensible Haines would share any of his secrets with Bruno. It must also explain the origins of Bruno’s obsession with him – it makes more sense in the film because he’s a famous tennis player, but here he’s an architect and I couldn’t really understand the fixation. Fundamentally, this scene has to lay the groundwork for the character and plot developments that follow.

There are a lot of great elements here, a fantastic story, good acting and spectacular design, not to mention the production expertise of Bond powerhouse Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson. This should be so good! And I really think it can be – it just needs a script more worthy of Highsmith and Hitchcock

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog is for people looking for more discursive and in-depth reviews of a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. I am also part of the London theatre review team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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