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Review: Strangers on a Train (Theatre Royal Brighton)

Patricia Highsmith's 1950 novel embarks on a new UK tour

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Most people's thoughts of Strangers on a Train will centre on Hitchcock's fine film and its set pieces: the murder reflected in the glasses, the tennis match and the fairground climax. There's plenty there to make one wonder how a stage production will carry it off.

However, Craig Warner's play draws on Patricia Highsmith's original novel which, while lacking in those dramatic set pieces, draws on the psychological elements of the story and delivers an evening that's deeply satisfying.

The central premise is the same: two strangers, Charles Bruno and Guy Haines, meet on a train and reveal that each of them has a family member who's an inconvenience to them – a wife and a father. Bruno proposes, seemingly jokingly, that he kills Haines's wife and that Haines can kill his father: with the pair having no apparent connection, the police will not be able to link the two deaths.

The standout performance is Chris Harper's Bruno. After a stint as a child groomer in Coronation Street, Harper could have been forgiven for opting for a more sympathetic part than the alcoholic, mother-fixated, repressed homosexual Bruno. But Harper presents a manipulative, scheming, giggling monster, with just the right mixture of self-pity and malice. It would have been easy to overplay the part but this performance stays on the right side of parody.

However, Jack Ashton is a bit too one-dimensional as Haines, who moves from initial amusement to despair, as he finds himself more and more trapped by Bruno's machinations. There should be more psychological torment; it's hard to understand quite why he's finally driven to commit the murder. There's solid support too from John Middleton as the private eye who figures it all out and from Hannah Tointon as Haines's new wife, in a rather thankless role.

Plaudits too for designer David Woodhead's functional set: one which manages to incorporate a train, Bruno's mansion, Haines's office and home in a single structure.

Director Anthony Banks could have ratcheted up the tension some more, the plot moves a little too slickly towards the end, with everything far too neatly wrapped up, and it's never quite clear why Bruno abandons the plan to have no connection between Haines and himself, but it still adds up to an intriguing evening, good enough to momentarily cast Hitchcock from one's mind.

Strangers on a Train runs at Theatre Royal Brighton until 13 January before embarking on a UK tour throughout 2018.