Patricia Highsmith may not have been the first writer to come up with a story about committing the perfect murder, but her breakout 1950s novel, Strangers On A Train, set a benchmark that many others have since followed.
A stage revival of this taut psychological thriller is now touring the country and this week it had opening night audiences at Woking’s packed New Victoria Theatre on the edge of their seats.
But it wasn’t just tension that had them concentrating hard but the effort of trying to understand two of its softly spoken stars who are, perhaps more used to working on intimate TV sound stages than in a cavernous theatre – and the New Vic is a barn of a place.
The success of this production confidently rests on the shoulders of Chris Harper, seen lately as the pimp and sex trafficker, Nathan Curtis, in Coronation Street.
He’s a seasoned theatre actor and has the on-stage charisma to make sociopath Charles Bruno the unlikely star of the show.
From the moment we first meet him, clutching a drink and desperate to make friends with a fellow train traveller, Harper’s finely nuanced performance lays the groundwork for an engrossing and menacing turn as a stalker turned murderer.
Bruno is charming, personable, outgoing and confident but there is also a fragile vulnerability to him as drinks too much and seeks out company and friendship.
His relationship with his mother, which is revealed in intimate moments throughout the story, is rather disturbing. I half expected a shock scene with the pair sharing a bed. The workshy playboy is very much a mummy’s boy.
The play opens on board a rather sumptuous American train. Aspiring architect Guy Haines just wants to be left alone to read his book and ponder how to get out of a loveless marriage.
The last think he needs is a complete stranger engaging him in conversation.
But Bruno isn’t one to be dissuaded. He’s overpowering. Not before too long the chatter turns darker as he shares his feelings of hatred towards his controlling and domineering father.
Then he hits on a beauty of an idea. He’s prepared to kill Haines’ cumbersome wife if his new travelling companion will dispatch his tiresome dad.
After all, it would be the perfect murder. How would the cops connect the deaths with the strangers not linked in any way?
This is, of course, just the sort of outrageous conversation that occurs all the time on American trains. In Blighty, on the other hand, we don’t even make eye contact unless pressed.
Haines gets off the train and thinks nothing more about it – until he learns from his mistress that his estranged wife has been murdered.
From then on his life goes into freefall as Bruno bombards the reluctant widower with phone calls and messages until, worn down, he sees no other option but to carry out his half of the compact.
The first half of Anthony Banks’ production is slow to establish the plot and lacks the suspense of the play’s climax but it is worth sticking with it for Harper’s performance alone.
Call The Midwife’s Jack Ashton, as Haines, and Mr Selfridge’s Hannah Tointon, as his girlfriend Anne Faulkner, fail to make an impression.
Ashton is so quietly spoken that I had trouble hearing him. He gives little away through the first half, glowering a lot but not offering up much reaction to the mounting pressure he is being put under.
It’s not until after the interval that he finally becomes more animated.
Tointon, too, not given the most arduous of roles as Haines’ girlfriend then second wife, either talks too quickly, occasionally with her back to the audience, or too softly.
They’re not helped by David Woodhead’s tricksy set which sees different flaps in a backcloth open to reveal letterbox sets that deaden the pair’s voices when they’re performing inside.
The design may have worked on paper but the sight lines are terrible for anyone sitting on the right-hand side of the auditorium. There were some scenes I couldn’t see at all.
The under-used John Middleton, as private eye Arthur Gerard, doesn’t appear until the show is almost over so is given little time to pursue the murderous Charlie Bruno and his unwilling cohort, Guy Haines.
SOAT works well as a psychological study in terror and menace but it would have been more successful with a stronger performance from Ashton.
Instead the production relies on Harper who, thankfully, rises to the challenge.
To read Stage Review‘s interview with Anthony Banks, Jack Ashton and Chris Harper click HERE
Playing at the New Victoria Theatre until Saturday before continuing to tour to:
Richmond Theatre, February 19 – 24
Arts Theatre, Cambridge, February 26 – March 3
Grand Opera House, York, March 5 – 10
Aylesbury Waterside Theatre, March 19 – 24
New Theatre, Cardiff, March 27 – 31.
Chris Harper excels as sociopath and indolent playboy, Charlie Bruno, in Patricia Highsmith’s psychological thriller, Stranger On A Train, which is now touring.