There's a well documented danger in big budget musicals of audiences coming out humming the sets instead of the tunes, as recently happened with with the eye-poppingly lavish Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And now the sets are threatening to overwhelm the emotional content, too, of plays like the new stage version of Patricia Highsmith's Strangers On A Train that, like the aforementioned musical, began as a novel and has also been a film. In this case, the impressive technology has a set by Tim Goodchild that is sent into constant motion and atmospheric projections by Peter Wilms that between them conspire to change locations in the blink of an eye.
But it does beg a nagging question: why put it on stage at all if all you want to do is make it so insistently filmic? It's unquestionably both skilled and polished, but it also feels like a pointless waste of a lot of effort. Surely audiences would find it cheaper to buy the DVD. It's the same problem that affected the stage version of The Graduate at this same West End address a few years ago, whose sole dramatic thrill was the sight of a middle-aged actress (Kathleen Turner first, followed by the likes of Jerry Hall and Linda Gray) offering brief stage nudity.
Unlike the long-running stage version of another Hitchcock film The 39 Steps that revels in its own theatrical resourcefulness, with just 4 actors playing over 130 characters, Strangers On A Train is both more literal and more plodding, with a large cast of 16. But for all their considerable efforts, they're outshone by that set -- it's not the fault of the actors that they can't compete with its swirling revolve, which gives the most animated performance of the night. No wonder the programme lists no fewer than seven stage managers running the whole thing.
On stage, too, the relentless parade of short, fast scenes ultimately tends to dissipate rather than amplify the tensions of the story of two men Guy and Bruno (played respectively by a slightly underpowered Laurence Fox and a more complex Jack Huston) who meet on a train and then become enmeshed in a plan to execute a murder on behalf of the other. Though a play could have done more to explore the underlying psychology of their destructive pact, here the proceedings are so relentlessly busy that there's barely time to breathe, let alone think. Meanwhile, Robert Allan Ackerman's production doesn't give us time to think, let alone feel, either as it signals emotions for us by swelling underscoring as tensions are supposed to rise.
The sense of deja vu is also further sustained in the strange Tennessee Williams aura that settles over the portrait of Bruno's troubled relationship with his mother (played by Imogen Stubbs, giving one of her now familiar performances of a woman under strain).
That isn't to deny that it keeps you moderately gripped and entertained. But at up to £87 a ticket, audiences may justifiably want a lot more than that.
"... it is good to welcome the arrival of Strangers on a Train, which at its considerable best really does thrill and chill."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"The adaptation is impressive."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"... although the show looks good, the acting is a more mixed bag."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"... the whole thing becomes confusing and contrived ..."
Simon Edge for The Daily Express
"There is a lot of exposition but not much tension and for all the black-and-white aesthetics the atmosphere never seems sufficiently noirish."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard