Review: Strangers on a Train @ Grand Opera House York

By Nayomi Karthigesu

“Strangers on a Train” is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s first novel and thus my expectations of the play are formed. Having read a few of her books, it is evident that she likes to deploy certain tropes for her characters and “Strangers on a Train” is no different. In fact, it is the epitome of Highsmith’s writing, laying the foundations for her future compendium of work. As such, the production has a lot to carry on its shoulders.

Walking into the space, (the start delayed by fifteen minutes, due to technical difficulties while constructing the set that morning), I was not greeted by a reconstructed train as I had excepted (and somewhat hoped) but rather a dusky American flag. The lights dim, the audience quietens down, and one of the panels opens to reveal a train carriage on what apparently is the smoothest train ride in the world. It was clear from the offset that the play would take on a naturalistic and realistic approach, as evidenced by the lack of physical theatre conveying a moving carriage, and the American accents. The scene changes and accents were a little rough around the edges, but overall highly commendable. Despite the slightly stilted and delayed start, the play progressed more smoothly as it went from strength to strength. However, I was never fully consumed by the play and was always left wanting more.

Throughout the performance I could feel the edges of unease, sense the hints of homoeroticism and detect the mental derailing of the characters, yet nothing was ever concrete. Whilst the actors were technically brilliant in their accents and movements, they failed to completely convince me that they were losing their minds. Jack Ashton, who plays the mentally unravelling Guy Haines, is largely stoic despite his life falling apart as the play progresses: there are only a few bursts of madness to indicate his turmoil. Similarly, Chris Harper’s portrayal of the amoral Charles Bruno shows great promise, but he did not fully become the psychotic playboy with an Oedipus complex till right at the end. However, the other cast members playing the close relatives and friends of the former two, John Middleton (Gerard), Hannah Tointon (Anne Faulkner) and Helen Anderson (Elsie Bruno) carried their characters exceptionally well with convincing gravitas that rivalled the two lead actors.

Likewise, the technical marvel of a set (something you should witness for yourself) helps create the sense that the audience are only watching snapshots of these character’s lives. However, the music could have done much more to conduct the nervousness of the situation- it was only used at the end of scenes instead of being used to build tension. Indeed any feeling I did have, such as the anxiousness during the build to the first climax of the play, seemed to have been dictated by the plotline rather than the actors.

You are always left with the sense of wanting more – Patricia Highsmith is a true veteran of her artform, however, the play does not fully live up to it. She lays the tracks for a rich story, one steeped in enigmatic characters and a dark plotline, yet the audience’s collective laugh as the play reaches its final and tragic climax is a testimony to how the production seemed to be at odds with the poignant excellence of the book. Perhaps comparing the portrayals of Highsmith’s complex characters on film with the actors on stage is unfair; the latter were still highly commendable. That being said, more could have been done to really convey the hidden themes within the play.

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