Strangers on a Train (1950) was Pamela Highsmith's first novel, and it was picked up immediately by Alfred Hitchcock. Aylesbury's Waterside Theatre is the penultimate stop for this theatrical version, adapted by Craig Warner and directed by Anthony Banks, on its three month UK tour before it's finally shunted into the sidings.
This mix of thriller and investigation into the heaven and hell of living a life beyond the norms of 1950s society commences in the luxuriously-designed – set, colour and sound coalescing - corridor coach of an American Trans-Continental express. A chance meeting between our two protagonists, Charles Bruno, wealthy layabout and dipsomaniac, and Guy Haines, promising architect with an obsession for designing a bridge – an all-white bridge at that – leads them in the one case to plot and in the other to stumble upon an unthinkable act: the perfect, amoral murder. Thus they are tempted inexorably into the heart of darkness in Metcalf, Texas that comes to swallow up first their peace of mind and then their sanity.
One of the intriguing features of the play is that here we were in the heart of Buckinghamshire, being carried away west to Texas and New Mexico, but yet more fundamentally taken back through time to the days of Ancient Greece and Rome and specifically the theatrical tradition of Aeschylus and Sophocles in 5th century Athens. One of the staple themes of that tradition was to show how the Furies, seen as female harpies, were agents of vengeance and retribution, punishing men for crimes against the natural order. And what can be more unnatural than the commissioning of would-be perfect murders by cross-fertilizing the twin acts with a stranger? One of the key relationships in the play, that between Bruno and his mother Elsie, must be derived directly from Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, with Oedipus unwittingly killing his father and later marrying his mother; the basic situation later famously taken up by Sigmund Freud, of course. Nor is it coincidence that the country club that Guy is designing at the oasis of Palm Springs, California is called Palmyra, the city in the Syrian desert that was one of the wonders of the Roman world in the 3rd century AD.
Anthony Banks' direction was bursting with smart ideas, notably in his use of the small miracle that was David Woodhead's set. This was rooted in the stone facade of the Bruno house, and comprised endless interlocking components that slid open like the daily revelation of a Christmas calendar – thus we were now hurtling to New Mexico, now at home on the verandah of Guy and his wife, now in Guy's drawing office, now in Bruno's mother's boudoir, and perhaps most striking of all, in an Edward Hopper-style Nighthawks bar complete with slumped barflies, nicotine lighting and Jerry Lee Lewis jukebox. The lighting switched between dazzling to deepest sombre, colour filters galore, and the sound design tripped from Carmen to shunting locomotives via Glenn Miller.
Typical of the director's and sound designer's sly touch was the way Act I concludes with Guy, forced to do Charles' dirty work for him, stalks the slumbering occupants of the Bruno residence to the sound of Puccini's 'O Mio Babbino Caro' [Oh my dear Daddy, I love him....]. It would be impossible to conceive a more elaborate yet marvellously serviceable set beyond the provision of a fully rotating stage.
In Act II a little disappointment rather lurked, as if the Santa Fé flyer were to dwindle into the suburban Los Angeles Metro Rail. The psycho-drama turned into the lesser genre of investigative procedural as house detective Arthur Gerard, played with abrasive geniality by John Middleton, begins to make a series of little connections. As Bruno increasingly comes to view his psychotic world from the end of a bottle, so this fascinating character becomes a tiresome drunk to those around him and even to an extent as a character on stage. The scene where he arrives at Guy's house in his absence, and flirts in a drunken, bizarre way with Guy's would-be second wife Anne would have benefited from pruning. Set against the electric drama of Act I, I also found the outcome in the culminating scene a trifle underwhelming, though the conjuring up of the railway sidings by means of light, colour and oxygen is marvellously done, and the dressing of the two men in identical white shirts and grey trousers is the definitive demonstration that here we have the twin aspects of a single personality.
Chris Harper in the plum rôle was a memorably twitchy Bruno, loud of laugh but whose self-confidence is stretched wafer-thin over his inner demons. His hold over Guy Haines is not so much based upon his prosaic blackmail but on his Mephistophelian offering of forbidden fruit. Jack Ashton did very well in arguably the more difficult part of Guy, whose weakness is exposed, his professional life wrecked and his laudable ambition shredded into shards of nightmare, in equal measure shame and guilt. Hannah Tointon was a persuasive lover to Guy, for a long time uncomprehending but at the 11th hour offering her man a helping hand towards an imperfect redemption. I also particularly liked Sandy Batchelor as Guy's architect partner Frank Myers, cunningly made up to look and sound like a saner but still wildly ebullient Charles Bruno.
This is a drama that reaches down into the familiar well of complex family tensions, but then hurtles on down another level into a whirlpool of murderous resentments. And Aylesbury's Waterside Theatre is the place this week to take this dramatic trip across the broad plains of South-Central USA that'll leave you gasping at its end.