The biggest drama you’ll probably face on a train these days is someone using their phone in the quiet coach or finding someone in the seat you reserved. Not in Strangers on a Train.
Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, author of The Talented Mr Ripley, the protagonist shares similarities with Ripley, in that they both come across as charming but enjoy ‘playing’ those around them.
In Coronation Street, Chris Harper played the manipulating Nathan, who groomed ‘our Bethany’ and provided Corrie with some gripping storylines.
Here he plays Charles Bruno, who could charm the birds from the trees with his smooth talking and his uncanny ability to appear to understand whatever it is that you are going through.
Imagine meeting this stranger on a train and telling him your life story. This is what happens to the unassuming Guy Haines (played with genuine vulnerability by Jack Ashton), and from here on the story takes a darker turn.
David Woodhead’s set design is both stunning and cumbersome, as it ambitiously covers all facets of these gentleman’s lives, from the home that Guy built to the train they ride, and the streets they plot on.
The problem is, it is not always reliable. At times, sliding doors stick and the transitions are not always as smooth as you want them to be.
Anthony Banks directs with no real urgency, which allows the characters to breathe, and take in what is happening to them.
It also means that you see many sides of what could be stereotypes in other hands.
At times though, during act two, you do find yourself wanting to blow your whistle, so that this train leaves the station on time, because the action does start to flag a little, as there is too much exposition.
But Chris Harper does an astonishing job. He has stage presence to burn. He has many theatre credits and it shows as he draws you into this dark plot. Yet there is something inherently engaging about Charles Bruno and it’s down to him.
An absolute player who adores his overbearing mother, this could so easily become a Noel Coward caricature. But in Harper’s skilled hands, Bruno becomes someone who you hope ‘gets away with it.’
Jack Ashton is also very credible as Bruno’s pawn, caught in Bruno’s manipulative maelstrom, churning around like a rogue lone sock in a washing machine.
Hannah Tointon is also excellent as Anne Faulkner, Guy’s bride-to-be. John Middleton plays Arthur Gerard, a man with all the answers. Although his role seems cliched, he brings more to it than is on the page.
There are some genuinely chilling moments, so anyone who likes page-turning thrillers will be satisfied.
There are scenes which need trimming, and the production cannot decide if it is genuinely unsettling, or camp and over-the-top. One moment when Anne Faulkner gives Guy some bad news is so shouty that you almost expect a drum roll.
But there is still something deeply satisfying on display here. Patricia Highsmith always offers more than the usual Agatha Christie rogues gallery of a colonel, a maid, and a high society gal because she writes about the human psyche.
You find yourself in Guy’s shoes, thinking about what you would do if a stranger promised to deal with people in your life who were causing you a great deal of stress.
So if you’re are seeking a brief diversion from all the bad news in the papers and on TV, Strangers on a Train is just the ticket. Don’t miss this train. But beware the person sitting next to you.
Strangers on a Train is at the Opera House until 10 February.
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