Strangers On A Train
11 February 2014
It is rarer and rarer these days for a theatrical production to take one’s breath away on more than one occasion, but Strangers On A Train, now playing its final weeks at the Gielgud Theatre, turns out to be one of those rare occasions.
Tim Goodchild’s revolving set is, quite simply, awe-inspiring. Combined with the visual projections from Peter Wilms, the stunning sound design from Augustus Psillas and wonderful, evocative lighting from Tim Lutkin, Goodchild’s set not only easily and instantly transports you to the various playing areas of this most noir of thrillers but it does so in a way which, of itself, propels the narrative, builds the suspense and reminds the audience that they are participating in a race to destruction. It seems impossible that a better set design will be seen on the London stage this year.
It is tall, imposing, a revolve which turns and turns to reveal constantly shifting spaces, some of which arrive at breath-taking break-neck speed. Everything is in black and white, heightening the sense of period, the vivid palpable sense of noir dread and the unrelenting search for redemption. There is but one exception to this black and white panorama and that exception speaks for itself – the use of colour emphasises the outsider nature of the exception.
The design, including the marvellous, sumptuous costumes, is utterly, wonderfully perfect in every way. You should see this production just to marvel at the design work. And the dressing gowns, the waistcoats, the ties, the frocks.
But the glittering treasures are not confined to the inanimate objects. More ephemeral, but equally delicious, is Craig Warner’s crafty, episodic, suspense-filled adaptation of the novel by Patricia Highsmith (she of The Talented Mr Ripley fame).
It is both awkward and sublime in equal measure. There is clunky dialogue but that is exactly as it should be in this less sophisticated, yet more sophisticated, bygone era. Warner manages to artfully sum up characters and situations, to provide a narrative thread that absolutely rattles along like the train upon which the two central characters first meet. It’s a thriller through and through.
Robert Allen Ackerman directs with a sure and decisive hand. There are no moments of tiresome exposition or glaringly bad stage business; instead, the staging takes a leaf from the fluidity of the script and pulses in a totally complementary way.
This is not to say that the writing puts on the page characters which great actors will walk over broken glass to play. It does not. Warner’s script is about the thrill, the twist, the surprise, the suspense – not the detail or depth or inner motivations of the players who participate in the high melodrama.
But, surprisingly, despite this, what Warner does do, or possibly what Ackerman makes happen on stage despite Warner’s avoiding of the subject of depth of character, is provide startling good opportunities for excellent actors to ply their trade.
Jack Huston is simply phenomenally good as the troubled, broken, spoilt Mummy’s Boy, Bruno. This is a performance of such rich and intricate detail, it is not possible to absorb its many delicacies in one sitting. His invasion of personal space, his occasional stammer, the smile that would freeze Satan’s spine, the balletic hand gestures signifying loss of control, the silent entrances and exits, the shimmering pain and the frantic dissolution of spirit: all powerful and remarkable. As an intense and finely judged insight into complete mental breakdown, Huston is really as good as it gets. His work here is world class in every possible way.
For an actress given next to nothing in the script, Miranda Raison astonishes. She shines, chirps, simmers, simpers, wonders, loves and is ultimately undone – and she makes it all work seamlessly and effortlessly. The inherent ridiculousness of her character’s actions is totally lost because she is mesmerising, incandescently beautiful and she finds a way to make everything, even her unlikely friendship with Huston, seem perfectly natural and utterly understandable. The look of sheer unadulterated pain shattering her features in the second Act when she realises what Huston has deliberately done by wearing dirty boots in her home is not one an audience will easily forget.
Myanna Buring, who usually plays the role of Miriam was indisposed tonight and so her key part was taken by the luminous Anna O’Byrne. She did not set a foot wrong and it is truly difficult to believe that Buring could do more with the role. One of the greatest things that can be said about an actor is that they can die well on stage – O’Byrne dies spectacularly and with a painful realism that is both impressive and disturbing. She is also one of those actresses who can sustain or create a mood merely with a look, a skill she here displays repeatedly. It’s a pitch perfect turn in every way.
As the deluded dipsomaniac mother with an unhealthy connection with her clearly disturbed son, Imogen Stubbs is better than she has been on any stage in some time. It’s a brave and open performance, cracked with loss and grief and the unrelenting headache of alcoholism. It’s excellent work, again from little more than a few scraps of script.
Tam Williams (Myers) and Christian McKay (Gerard) are both more than serviceable in key parts, although McKay was slightly too knowingly arch for the rest of the production.
The biggest issue lies with Laurence Fox who, as Guy, the man Huston meets on the train, is the lead. Fox almost gets away with most of what is required, but the performance is far too one-dimensional, especially when juxtaposed between the superior work of Hustun and Raison. There is not enough nuance in the performance, not enough style – the transition from the Guy first met on the train to the Guy sitting calmly on the floor at the play’s end is not sufficiently well drawn. As Hustun slowly sucks away Guy’s goodness, his soul, his very raison d’être, an excellent actor would clearly show the change. But Fox is simply not up to that level of performance – which is a pity, because a better actor could have made this production magical given the rest of the cast.
This is, then, yet another example of star casting getting in the way of truly magnificent theatre. If only producers would trust the work to succeed, as here it surely would have done with a gifted actor playing Guy rather than the workmanlike Fox.
As it is, Fox does not destroy anything; it’s just that the possible heights are not attained. But you are certainly left wondering, very clearly, how much better things might have been if Guy had been differently cast.
It is playing til February 22, and disquiet about the tame Fox aside, it is incredibly well worth seeing. It’s not a play for everyone, but if you get on Goodchild’s train, and ride with it, there is plenty to enjoy and savour.