As thrillers continue to grip theatregoers around the country, director Anthony Banks has turned his attention to one of the all-time classic spine-tinglers, Strangers On A Train.
He sticks closely to Patricia Highsmith’s acclaimed 1950 debut novel, adapted by Craig Warner, rather than the 1951 Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation (which made substantial changes to the plot to indulge Hitchcock’s cinematic flights of fancy).
The play is about two men who meet in the dining carriage of a train that’s crossing the vast expanse of 1950s America.
They get talking, with successful businessman Guy Haines questioning his wife’s fidelity and revealing he wants to divorce her so he can marry his mistress, Anne.
His new travelling companion, a playboy named Charles Bruno, comes up with a fiendishly inventive idea: he’ll kill Guy’s wife if Guy agrees to bump off Charles’s father, whom he loathes.
It is, the playboy points out, the perfect double crime – because neither of them has an apparent motive.
With the ensuing twists and turns, it’s no wonder Strangers On A Train is revered as an edge-of-the-seat thriller – a prime example of a genre that Anthony Banks feels never goes out of fashion for two reasons.
“There’s a quick answer and a dark answer,” he smiles. “The quick answer is that people are inherently nosy. The dark answer is that we’re fascinated by the notions of right and wrong.”
Jack Ashton, the Call The Midwife star who plays Guy, agrees – adding that, even though the story is set in 1950, it remains resonant for contemporary audiences.
“Human nature hasn’t changed, has it? What’s interesting about Patricia Highsmith is how she puts normal people in extreme scenarios and just cranks up the pressure.
“All her characters are stretched to their limits and her stories make you wonder when and where your own breaking point might be.”
Guy succumbs to Charles’ charisma. When we first meet him the architect has the world at his feet.
Marital problems aside, he’s a happy-go-lucky, dedicated and ambitious man who is at the top of his game and very much in love with girlfriend, Anne.
“But we only see him in that perfect world for the first 15 minutes and then the rest of the play is hell for him,” says Ashton.
Highsmith went on to write many more novels, the most famous of which were The Talented Mr Ripley series.
The first book in the series mirrors Strangers On A Train with its two lovers’ lives upset by the arrival of a charismatic interloper in a tale that also treads morally murky waters.
The play looks at the light and darkness that’s in of all us, with Charles, in the first scene, talking about the metaphor of human beings possessing both white horses and black horses.
“He says that we must choose to steer those horses along the right path, whatever that might be,” says Banks.
“The worst choice, as Charles points out, is to live a life of just grey horses because that would be dull and disrespectful of the gift of life that’s been given to us.”
Chris Harper, who plays Charles, is fascinated by the idea of instant chemistry. “We all know what it’s like when you strike up a conversation with someone who genuinely excites you,” the actor says.
“We’ve all spoken to people on trains and planes who’ve bored the life out of us but occasionally you meet someone where you think, ‘Wow, you’re brilliant’. That’s what happens to Charles.”
Best known as Coronation Street bad boy, Nathan Curtis, Chris adds: “Through doing Corrie I’ve realised the lifelong effects of abuse and bullying – two topics that get hotter each year and which at the moment are particularly hot in the press.
“You see the effect those have on people and that’s a relevant theme and thread to what happens with Charles.
“Charles has got an incredible audacity which is breathtaking to play,” he smiles.
“He’s so cheeky and so ballsy but at the same time that’s a shiny veneer on a huge pool of insecurity, which is always exciting to play as an actor because it’s like looking down from a great cliff.
“You see how unhappy he is underneath and you have this huge bravery over the top of that. That contradiction is always good fun.”
Bad guys, Chris notes, are more fun to play. “But you’ve always got to try and find the contradictions.
“When somebody is angry you have to find the softness and vulnerability beneath that anger.
“If someone is vulnerable you have to find the anger that’s keeping them going. If somebody was just horrible they’d never get any traction whereas Charles has this lovely charisma.
“He’s so shambolic but charming that you could see him in Mad Men, and love him, but you’d also be wary of him because you know his internal logic is somehow warped.
“Something is fractured in him.”
To read Stage Review‘s verdict about Strangers On A Train click HERE.