Chris Harper as Charles and Jack Ashton as Guy on a train journey to murder

Strangers on a Train

The New Alexandra Theatre


The perfect murder, if one wanted to commit such a thing, would be a sad demise, or even a disappearance, that aroused no suspicions, had no hint of foul play, so would not be investigated.

The next best, for those with a homicidal bent, would be a random killing, one with apparently no suspects, no motive and no leads, so could not be investigated, at least not with any expectation of success.

And that was the masterplan of Charles Bruno, flamboyant playboy and convivial psychopath, doted upon by his mother in a relationship which would have found approval from Oedipus, but kept on a tight financial leash by his father.

If his father was removed from the equation, however, then Charlie would have the unfettered wealth for the hedonistic lifestyle he so craved.

Travelling by train to Sante Fe to meet his mother he meets architect Guy Haines, on his way to Metcalf, Texas, for a divorce from wife Miriam – which is turning into a messy affair. Guy confesses he would like to be rid of her completely to start a new job, and new life with new woman Anne.

They are just strangers on a train . . .  Charles, a man who probably cannot remember a time he was sober, hatches the perfect plan. Both would like someone to become the dear departed so why not just swap murders. That way, with no motive, no links, no clues, the cases would never be solved.

Guy, plied with drink by Charles, finds the idea amusing and drinks to it, then gets off the train to arrange his divorce thinking nothing more of the fanciful conversation.

The moral of the tale being don’t make drunken deals, even in jest with likeable psychotic nutters.

A short time later Guy’s wife is strangled in a Metcalf amusement park and the nightmare begins.

Chris Harper is quite brilliant as the mad as a hatter, friendly, colourful, hail fellow well met psychopath Charles. He is perhaps best known as Nathan Curtis from Coronation Street but he has a long theatre CV and is a comfortable and commanding actor on stage. He gives us a Charles who is louche, the life and soul of any party, a willing best friend - and as dangerous as a cornered rattlesnake. Whether Guy thought it was a joke or not, hardly matters, Charles wants the death pact fulfilled.

Jack Ashton, vicar Tom Hereward in Call the Midwife, starts off as the staid, middle class architect with a country club contract in Palm Beach, a dream of building a white bridge and a new life before him.

Anne and Guy

Hanna Tointon as Anne and Jack Ashton as Guy 

That fateful journey with Charles, though, sees his life and mind begin a steady descent into darkness. There is a murder he unwittingly agreed to, and a demand he carries out his part of the bargain. The idea of strangers on a train never meeting again is lost as Charles phones or appears on a daily basis and accusing, anonymous letters are sent to Anne and Guy's friends and clients..

It is a battle of Guy’s dwindling resistance against Charles’ growing persistence with new wife Anne and blackmail the ace in the hole as inevitably, as Guy is worn down, the contract is fulfilled.

John Middleton, best known as Ashley Thomas in Emmerdale, plays Arthur Gerard, a private detective who worked for Charles’ father for 20 years, and who sets out to find the killer of his friend and employer. A job made easier by the alcoholic Charles’ implausible explanations, his regular unwelcome visits to Guy and the fact that he unwittingly leaves clues from everywhere he has been.

Arthur is stupid, according to Charles, but then Charles has been wrong on many things and it does not take ex-policememan Arthur long to work out the entire plot.

Helen Anderson is the doting mother Elsie and there is a powerful moment when she realises her whimpering son, protesting innocence at Arthur’s accusations, is indeed guilty and the cold-blooded killer of her husband, and his own father, even if it is by proxy.

Hannah Tointon, well known from TV, is the baffled Anne, the new wife, who from a sunny future stretching before her while on holiday in Mexico with Guy, sees her new husband change, day by day as his dreams and self-respect drain away until, in the final scene she offers, if not redemption, at least a way back.

There is also good support from Sandy Batchelor as Guy’s enthusiastic friend Frank and Owen Findlay as long-time college friend Robert.

Craig Warner’s adaptation is based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 psychological thriller rather than Hitchcock’s film from 1951, where Raymond Chandler worked on the script incidentally, but it still has a cinematic feel with a dozen or so sets needed for bars, train, Guy’s home, his apartment, Charles' home, room and so on.

It could means lots of short delays with props rolled on an off but instead it is all achieved by an ingenious set from David Woodhead which is like a magicians box with panels moving horizontally and vertically to instantly reveal new compartments for each scene. Not only no delays but visual interest to boot.

It must be a nightmare, though, on the first night in a new theatre with scene changes that must be as precise as a military tattoo back stage. There were a couple of hitches, of no real consequence, although full marks to Helen Anderson when a screen fell down in her bedroom as scenery behind was moved and she worked it into her speech seamlessly as if it was a regular occurrence, part of the script.

With front video projection (Duncan McLean) on the visible panels around the boxed in scenes it is a remarkably effective and imaginative set. Director Anthony Banks keeps up the pace and brings out the despair slowly overwhelming Guy – Highsmith never lets up on the torment of the poor soul - as well as the growing obsession Charles has for Guy with a nice, steady hand.

The result is an entertaining, well-acted production to delight thriller fans. To 03-02-18

Roger Clarke


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