Strangers on a Train – Review – York Grand Opera House
By Roger Crow, February 2018
Two perfect murders, two seemingly watertight alibis. Strangers with personal grudges commit two homicides. Except they swap killings. Then, in theory, never meet again. Simple.
That’s the hook which has made Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train such a compelling tale since it was first published in 1950. But there’s no such thing as the perfect murders, as soon becomes clear when the story unfolds on stage at York’s Grand Opera House.
It’s night one of Craig Warner’s play in York and some last minute technical hitches mean a late start. Given the complexity of David Woodhead’s clever set, I’m not surprised there’s been the odd problem. It’s one of the most impressive I’ve seen; a beautifully constructed thing, divided into segments like one of those puzzles kids used to play with.
Remember those eight plastic tiles which slots from space to space? In this case a few segments open to reveal the train carriage where our strangers meet. One’s Guy Haines, an uptight architect reading a book. The other’s Charles Bruno, an outgoing playboy with a hip flask who’s very generous with his booze.
The strangers get talking, their light banter growing darker as Haines reveals his troubled relationship with a former partner. His boozy travelling companion fills in the blanks and before long the scene is set for mutual killings. Except it’s not so black and white.
I’ll not reveal too much for fear of spoiling the story, but as the drama unfolds, and that stunning set transforms into assorted locations, I’m knocked out by Chris Harper’s performance. As the outgoing alcoholic co-lead, he’s light years away from Corrie’s recent villain Nathan. Soap stars, especially those in Weatherfield and Emmerdale, have to be spot on every time given their mostly one-take shooting schedules, so little wonder he’s so good.
Call the Midwife’s Jack Ashton is on fine form as Haines. Inevitably it’s a more restrained performance given the fact he’s a more introverted character.
The close of the first act is one of the most beautifully ‘executed’ I’ve seen. Pun intended as it marks the second killing which sets up the inevitable investigation in the second act. John Middleton, who gave such a breathtaking, moving performance as Ashley in Emmerdale, is equally compelling on stage as Arthur Gerard, the detective looking into these seemingly unconnected crimes.
Hannah Tointon (Mr Selfridge) is also a delight as the architect’s love interest, and the projection and lighting is expertly done. Take a bow Duncan McLean.
American accents are all on point; the costumes (also by David Woodhead) are splendid, and director Anthony Banks ensures the whole thing runs like a well engineered Amtrak train. If there’s a weak link it’s the fact the second act could be tightened by 10 minutes.
“Keeps me hooked”
Like Kenneth Branagh’s version of Murder on the Orient Express, there’s a feeling of things running out of steam toward the finale.
It’s a great story, beautifully told, and even as a chorus of audience coughs threatens to drown it the drama at several points, kudos to the cast for keeping me hooked.
I love a great closing line, and this has one of the most perfect since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.
Unlike Branagh’s Orient Express, I’ve no previous knowledge of how this is going to play out, so if you’re a fan of the source material, either via Highsmith’s novel or the Farley Granger movie, you’ll obviously have a different experience. Highly recommended.