Is there such a thing as a perfect murder?
It’s a theme explored by Strangers On A Train, a new theatrical adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel (soon after adapted by Hitchcock in his film of the same name). The plot sees two strangers agreeing to “exchange” murders to assist each other in their private lives – architect Guy Haines (in this performance, understudy Scott Sparrow) and the eccentric Charles Bruno (Jack Huston). What begins as a chance encounter soon becomes a pivotal moment for both men as their lives become intertwined in a psychological game of manipulation.
The production is visually stunning. Influenced by Hitchcock’s film as well as Plato’s ‘chariot allegory’ of the human soul driven by a black and a white horse (quoted early on in the play), the monochromatic visual design replicates an old movie and is as stark as any noir thriller. Tim Lutkin’s spectacular lighting is complimented by cinematic projections and angular sets, offering an expressionist feel of dancing shadows and eerie spotlights. The colour scheme filters into the period costumes and the wonderfully detailed, revolving set – the downside being the noticeable amount of backstage noise from the crew during scene changes. This is somewhat covered by a dissonant, Bernard Herrmann-esque jazz score that provides chilling atmosphere.
The visuals, however, are largely a disguise for a narrative that fails to thrill. Of the two male leads, Bruno is by far the more interesting. Though Huston’s eccentric performance lacks a truly sinister edge, his character’s motives revolve around a blatant yet creepy Oedipal triangle and the unfurling of his psychotic behaviour is the driving force of the plot – in the second half in particular. By comparison, Sparrow’s turn as Haines feels bland, his American accent wavers and his relationship with Huston’s Bruno lacks chemistry, merely hinting at an odd homoeroticism. The periphery characters include Miranda Raison as Haines’ wife Anne - a typical Hitchcock blonde - and Imogen Stubbs as Bruno’s mother, whose whiskey soaked voice befits her aging sexuality. The focus of the narrative, though, is very much the titular strangers – a narrative that is long-winded and clunky, playing out in short but slowly paced scenes. As such, the audience is never lured into the rhythm of the play and never truly invests in the outcome of the plot.
Ultimately and most criminally of all, the play lacks tension and suspense. It’s easy to see why Hitchcock would originally have been drawn to the story, but this production is missing the key elements that made the auteur such a success. Strangers On A train oozes style, but no amount of visual effects can disguise its lack of a gripping plot.
Watch: Strangers On A Train is performed at the Gielgud Theatre until 22nd February 2014.