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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Strangers On A Train
Gielgud Theatre  Winter 2013-2014

A psychological thriller novel best known as a classic Alfred Hitchcock film comes to the stage freed from restrictions of Hollywood censorship but absent the storytelling genius of a master filmmaker. The trade-off is almost even, but ultimately to the detriment of the stage version. 

Two men idly chatting on a train work out that if each were to murder the other's greatest enemy the crimes would be perfect, since there would be no connection between killer and victim. Then one of them does it, and insists on holding the other to a bargain that was never actually made except in his mind. 

Playwright Craig Warner goes back to Patricia Highsmith's original novel and is free not only to take the story in a much darker direction than Hitchcock did, but to bring out things the film could only hint at. 

Foremost of these is the warped psychology of dear mad Bruno, shaped not only by an all-but-incestuous relationship with his equally mad mother, who both infantilises and sexualises him, but by a seriously creepy sexually-tinged obsession with Guy. 

Jack Huston has been set free by director Robert Allan Ackerman to chew up all the scenery he wants in making Bruno so barking mad that you wonder why others don't run screaming from his presence. The answer is that Bruno is also supposed to be irresistibly charming, which Huston doesn't quite pull off, but there's no denying that he's a lot of fun to watch.

It is left to Laurence Fox as Guy, the one who didn't really want his wife murdered and certainly doesn't want to kill Bruno's father in return, to balance Huston with a more subtle performance. 

And with the real subject of the play being Guy's mental and emotional torment, Fox repeatedly seizes the stage back from Huston with his believable and moving inward playing of a man watching himself walk into his own damnation. 

So why isn't the play more of a success than it is? Paradoxically it's because its real subject is Guy's internal torment. Most of the plot is done by the end of Act One, and Act Two staggers along just showing us Guy being unhappy again and again, dissipating most dramatic tension and eventually even our interest in him.

(Most of the plot of Macbeth is crammed into the first hour too, with the rest of the play watching Macbeth fall apart. But Guy is not as deep and complex a character, nor as unsparing in his self-examination, nor as eloquent, nor written by as great a playwright.) 

Lacking Hitchcock's ability to build toward a climax, the second act drags interminably, and the playwright's attempts to inject some external events, in the sudden introduction of a detective and the threat to another potential victim, are too clumsily pasted on. 

And with your attention wandering, you might begin to notice that Tim Goodchild's very clever revolving set keeps threatening to be more inventive than anything happening on it, that Peter Wilms' very clever background projections don't actually add much, and that the uncredited movie music score I'll guess that it's either Dimitri Tiomkin's score from the film or a very good pastiche of Hitchcock-style music is actually the source of most of the film noir atmosphere. 

In their different ways both lead actors are well worth watching, and even sitting through the play's dreary stretches for. Imogen Stubbs is amusing in an appropriately creepy way as Bruno's smothering mother, but Miranda Raison has nothing to do but sit about looking pretty as Guy's new wife.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Strangers On A Train - Gielgud Theatre 2013  
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