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Strangers On A Train - Richmond Theatre (Review)

Strangers On A Train

Review by David Munro

STRANGERS On A Train was the first novel (published in 1950) of the American thriller writer Patricia Highsmith. A powerful and compelling psychological story it was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951 and is considered to be one of his best films.

The story involves two young men who meet on a train; one is an ambitious architect (not a tennis pro as in the film), Guy Haines (played by Will Thorp), the other, Charles Bruno (Alex Ferns), a playboy with a taste for danger.

They discuss the Platonic theories of right and wrong and, during their conversation, Charles proposes that he will kill Guy’s ex-wife on condition Guy will kill his father, thus providing both of them with the perfect alibi. Guy agrees and what follows provides a taut and exciting play leading up to a fascinating denouement before the final curtain.

Craig Warner’s adaptation of the novel is more true to Miss Highsmith than the film and avoids Hitchcock’s more flamboyant moments while still retaining the sense of claustrophobic terror inherent in the book.

Whether it’s hindsight or his adaptation, the character of Bruno appears to be, despite the fact that the two characters are at the opposite ends of the social scale, the prototype for Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr Ripley, another successful Highsmith novel and film; particularly as the homoeroticism inherent in both novels comes over quite plainly in this adaptation.

Both characters have an overwhelming drive, or ambition, and both are pathologically unable to tell right from wrong in their pursuit of their goals.

The Bruno in this production is beyond praise. Alex Ferns gives a performance of such power that it is incandescent. His portrayal of the psychopathic mother’s boy is faultless; from the moment he picks up Guy in the train until the climax of the play he dominates the stage.

He has the character down to a “T”, his every gesture and piece of body language tell you here is a man who is very psychologically disturbed. In the pick up scene, the jerky leg movements belie the urbane exterior telling one instantly that this man is not to be trusted. There are many more instances I could quote but hesitate to do so as it would give away plot details so you will have to take it on trust that this is a compelling, realistic and brilliant portrayal of a homosexual psychopath.

I must confess to never having seen Mr Ferns in his TV roles but from now on I will be watching out for him. His performance alone makes this play worth seeing.

He is partnered by a less showy but nonetheless perfectly judged performance in Will Thorp’s Guy. His is a difficult role as he has to be dominated and controlled by Bruno and yet has to create a character that is believable in its own right – which he does apparently effortlessly.

A supreme example of art concealing art. His gradual submission to Bruno’s domination combined with a repulsion with himself for so doing is painfully real. He gives an edge to the character which keeps the audience guessing as to his motives – is he a weak man dominated by a more powerful one? Is there a sexual element in his attitude to Bruno or what?

It says a lot for his performance that his final confrontation with Bruno brings all these questions into focus and they are answered cogently and coherently.

Both these performances are so powerful and so dominating that the rest of the cast have a hard job keeping up with them. Anita Harris, as Bruno’s over-protective and selfish mother, certainly gives as good as she gets in her scenes with Mr Ferns. Her performance reminded me irreverently of a piece of graffiti I saw years ago: “My mother made me a homosexual – If I give her the wool will she make me one too?”

Anita Harris made it quite clear that whatever Bruno’s kicks were, she was responsible for them.

However, I felt that Leah Bracknell, as Guy’s wife, was the weak link in the chain. Her performance was stereotyped and, at times, downright boring. Again, somewhat irreverently, I wondered why Guy bothered with her when, in comparison, life with Bruno seemed so much more enticing and exciting.

The rest of the cast merely filled out the corners of the plot. Colin Baker wandered round the stage in a rather aimless fashion as a faithful employee of Bruno’s family, playing detective and trying to make sense of what had been happening.

Andrew P Stephen had a nice little cameo part as Guy’s assistant or office manager although it had little relevance to the plot except to show that Guy had a life before Bruno.

This also applied to Mark McCallum’s thankless role as Guy’s best man and purveyor of new architectural projects.

As you will have gathered, this is in effect a two person play and with two such overwhelming performances who could ask for anything more?

Overall, the plot is sheer melodrama but one does not really object to that when the principal players turn it into a powerful evening of theatre. They may have been strangers on a train but by the end of the evening I felt I knew them quite well and had enjoyed my acquaintanceship with them; I think you will do likewise.

Strangers On A Train by Craig Warner. Adapted from the novel by Patricia Highsmith.
Directed by Robin Herford.
Designer – Michael Holt.
Lighting – Jack Thompson.
Sound – Ed Brimley.

CAST: Alex Ferns; Will Thorp; Anita Harris; Colin Baker; Leah Bracknell; Andrew P Stephen; Mark McCallum.
Presented by Kenneth H Wax and Nick Brooke Ltd in association with The Churchill Theatre, Bromley.
Richmond Theatre, The Green, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 IQJ.
Monday, July 10 – Sat, July 15, 2006.
Evenings: 7.45pm/Matinees Wed & Sat: 2.30pm.
Box Office: 0870 060 6651