Strangers on a Train – Review – Sheffield Lyceum
By Eve Luddington, January 2018
Craig Warner’s stage adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 psychological crime novel, set in post-war America, was premiered in the West End in 2013. Now, Yorkshire audiences can see a revival, directed by Anthony Banks.
Those who have read Highsmith’s novel will notice some changes to the structure and detail. A stage adaptation must inevitably condense and concentrate action, but Warner remains faithful to the essence of the story, the psychological power of one person over another.
Two strangers meet on a train. Guy Haines is an architect who wants to divorce his cheating wife. Charles Bruno, a wealthy heir, has no mission other than to do something extraordinary – and he loathes his father. As he plies his new ‘friend’ with drink, Bruno outlines the perfect murder. If each were to kill the other’s hate figure, in different areas of the country, there would be nothing to connect them to each other or to the murders – so long as they never meet again.
Guy laughs off the encounter until his wife is strangled. Then, Bruno sidles up to him in a bar to brag in lurid detail about the crime he has committed. Later, he sends Guy precise instructions about the murder he requires in return. And so Guy’s own destructive journey is set in motion.
Tension notches up when Bruno’s mother hires the family’s private detective, Arthur Gerard, to find her husband’s killer, and as Gerard pieces together the scraps of evidence.
Chris Harper’s louche, extravagant Bruno has panache. It’s easy to see why his mother, ably played by Helen Anderson, despairs of and dotes on him. The scene in which Mrs Bruno realises what her son has done is a disturbing highlight. In Harper’s hands, we understand how Bruno magnetises Guy with charm and threats.
Jack Ashton portrays Guy Haines as a rather hunched introvert but did not communicate to me the insidious invasion of his mind or the growing neurosis and fear that drives the character to commit murder. The three main characters are supported by a solid cast, some of whom play multiple roles.
Warner’s play is episodic and set in multiple locations, potentially a designer’s nightmare. In fact, I thought David Woodhead’s design the star turn of the night. Evocative images are projected onto a panel of screens which then slide apart to reveal a series of mini-stages, each conjuring up a particular mood and setting. They limit the actors’ movements and occasionally obstruct sightlines but serve the unsettling story brilliantly. Each new location brings a new revelation.
Lit sensitively by Howard Hudson, some are reminiscent of Edward Hopper paintings. Notable is the staircase leading to Bruno Senior’s unseen room which appears in two crucial scenes: first when Bruno instructs his ‘friend’ in murder and again when Guy climbs those stairs.
A sturdy production culminates in a chilling final scene, entirely different from the novel’s but in itself a coup de théâtre.
images: Helen Maybanks