Strangers on a Train - Review

Over recent weeks Brighton audiences have had the chance to see stage adaptations of two classic Hitchcock films. Whereas The 39 Steps, at the Theatre Royal, was a hilariously staged spoof, the NV production provided a tense and chilling evening. Both, in their different ways, were examples of theatre at its very best.

Two men meet by accident on a train and end up committing murder. Charles Bruno, an idle alcoholic who is kept on a tight financial rein by his father, and Guy Haines, an architect with an unfaithful wife. Bruno proposes a deal that he will kill the wife in exchange for Haines killing the father. But only one of them is serious – the other thinks that it's a joke. After completing his part psychopath, Bruno, returns, like Faust, to haunt the other man into honouring the bargain. Through charm and menace he worms his way into Haines' life and proceeds to wear the man down. In order to escape the continual persecution he eventually caves in and carries out the murder. However, there is no escape. Bruno, desperate for love and friendship is obsessed with Haines and cannot stay out of his life.

Pat Boxall's tight direction ensured that this psychological thriller kept its audience gripped and on the edge of their seats throughout. One could almost feel the concentration given and the silence that it generated.

The director and her technical team had the difficult task of staging 17 scenes with a dozen different locations. These were successfully realised on a minimalist set with walls and floor painted to represent architectural blueprints thereby delineating the various locations. In addition the subtle use of lighting and projected images played a major part in solving this problem. The action was often played in full or semi shadow, adding to the tension that was underscored by Edward Gamper's eerie and brooding music. Gamper's score was as important to this production as were the soundtracks of Bernard Herman to Hitchcock's films.

The excellence of the staging was matched to perfection by the acting of the whole cast. There were solid performances from John Adam and Sean Williams in the minor roles of Guy's colleague and college friend respectively. Tim Blissett gave another of his fine performances as the private detective. His understating of the part conveyed the doggedness of Columbo without the annoying mannerisms.

The two female roles shared the common bond of love. Maggie Clune captured both the coquettishness and the vulnerability of Bruno's doting mother whose love shrivels when she realises what her son has done. This is contrasted by the all forgiving love of Anne, Haines' new wife when the truth is revealed to her. Kirsty Harbron developed well the character's change from a naïve shallowness to a mature strength. The final scene where she silently extended her hand to Guy spoke volumes.

The brunt of the play fell upon the actors playing the two strangers. Matthew Lawson, as Bruno, was mesmerising as he oozed charm and menace. The actor was blessed with the required baby faced innocence that belied the evil that lurked within. A highlight of his performance was the long monologue when he described how he killed the wife and the feelings he experienced. His speech was counter pointed by the facial acting of Matthew Houghton, as the horrified Haines, as he listened in silence. Every eye movement and grimace was totally convincing and controlled. Houghton's portrayal of the man's torment and gradual disintegration was excellent.

If required to find any fault a case could be made out to criticise the writing. There were a couple of scenes where the dialogue could have been trimmed. But that really is nit picking.

On the way out someone remarked that this production was the best that they had ever seen at the NV – a sentiment that many would have been hard pressed to disagree with.

Barrie Jerram
31 January 2008