Strangers on a Train is a psychological thriller, originally written by Patricia Highsmith in 1950. The novel has since been adapted as a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and more recently for the radio and stage by Craig Warner. Welcome to 50s America! Business is booming and the American dream is very much alive and kicking. A tsunami of consumerism washes ashore expanding suburbia, bigger and better TVs, cars, blaring advertisements and easy bank loans. For the next few hours we’re given a fleeting glance into this world speeding past, like a runaway train to an inevitable derailed disaster. Highsmith’s story, Strangers on a Train, secretes the same boozey disillusionment as some of her contemporaries, such as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, or Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie, reeking of societies lacking in loyalty and riddled with lunacy and hypocrisy.
Sounds of the audience’s shuffling coats and passing of Minstrels is suddenly pierced by a solo sleazy jazz trumpet announcing the embarking of the play’s journey: The story circles around two men. Charles “Charlie” Bruno is a rich, spoilt, alcoholic Mummy’s boy, and Guy Haines is a well made architect. The play opens on a train carriage where our two protagonists drunkenly meet, or more Charlie imposes his company on Guy. Everyone is familiar with this situation. That one bloke who won’t shut the hell up and leave you alone when you’re claustrophobically stuck on a moving train (especially if you’re British where we’re slightly more emotionally stunted). In this way, Strangers on a Train perfectly evokes the train environment we all know - the stern ticket conductor, the awkward silences, the rumble of the tracks underneath - as it fills the theatre, you’re filled with an eery sense of de-ja vu. As the two men get more pissed, they open up more, in that odd frankness that is possible when confessing to a complete stranger. However, I’m not sure how I feel when characters say the title of the play within the play. I can’t figure out whether I secretly love the cyclical nature of it, with a little “ooooh” playing in my head, or if it sounds a little cheesy. Let’s go for the first, as our boy Charlie whips out “I’m just a stranger on a train” five minutes in.
(As a side note, I’d love to do an in-depth study on is why its completely and utterly socially acceptable to get pissed on a train. It’s pretty frowned upon when riding the bus or hopping on the tube, but for some unbeknown reason, on trains you can crack a tinnie at eleven o’clock in the morning, no questions asked.)
In the drunken madman’s ramblings, key themes are introduced and the plot is laid out. Charlie proposes that they “trade” murders, his miser father, for Guy’s meddling and unfaithful wife. The play tosses with the idea of what makes someone “good” or “bad” parcelled up in Plato’s Chariot Allegory that Guy reads on the train. For anyone who isn’t a philosophy student, Plato’s idea is that everyone is a chariot rider drawn by one black horse and one white horse. It’s the rider’s life long struggle to try and control the two whilst being pulled along. Dichotomies keep cropping up all through the play - building houses and demolishing relationships, the wonder of giving birth and the wonder of delivering death. The two blokes suddenly look more like the tiny angels and devils that live on cartoons’ shoulders, offering contradictory points of view.
The set is the real jewel in this play’s crown. It's like a mad advent calendar on steroids. A fantastic piece of design effortlessly revealing ever-changing scenes. To quote Charlie; “A house should reflect the people who live in it” and I think the set echoes the labyrinth-like structure of the thriller. In fact it’s possible that the genius of the set dwarfs the acting in areas. Sometimes the script feels slightly jarred or completely missing parts. I’m a wee bit confused why the gory action the novel is renowned for, disappeared. I’d have liked to see some of the bloody handiwork of the gruesome twosome.
And at a climatic moment full of awful revelations, bursting emotions, and high running tensions, you probably shouldn’t be stifling a laugh. However, on my way out the theatre I bumped into a mate of mine. In a sort of wink-wink, nudge-nudge, chortle-chortle I joked about that scene, which was met with a dead pan expression and stony silence. She’d apparently cried all through that bit. So maybe I’m a bitter skeptic and you should just go see for yourselves. For on point set design and a wickedly dark and twisting story about mania, murder, greed and freedom Strangers on a Train is worth checking out! - Jess Butcher