REVIEW: Strangers on a Train at the New Alexandra Theatre | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

REVIEW: Strangers on a Train at the New Alexandra Theatre

Culture Critic Ruth Horsburgh enjoys Craig Warner's "fantastic and enthralling" adaption of Strangers On A Train at the New Alexandra Theatre.

Craig Warner’s stage adaptation of Strangers On A Train is based on the 1949 novel by Patricia Highsmith, which was brought to a wider audience in the classic Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation of the same name. The fateful encounter of two young men on a train makes you question the dark potential of chance encounters. The remarkable opening of the story promises much, and this whole production goes on to deliver.

As we took to our seats in the New Alexandra Theatre, a white-washed American flag was projected onto a series of adjoining panels. As trumpets herald the start of the play, the stage was set for a portrayal of the American Dream. Or was it? As the blood red of the flag’s stripes became more prominent, the audience felt a sense of foreboding. American coolness would soon turn to coldness. A life-changing meeting occurs between two men whilst on a train. Guy Haines is an ambitious architect whose professional career is going from strength to strength. However, his personal life is in turmoil, and he is seeking a divorce from his adulterous wife. Charles Bruno, a wealthy urbane socialite has his problems too – not helped by his drinking habit. Bruno confides in Haines that he hates his unloving and money-obsessed father, and wishes he were dead. Bruno concocts a fatal pact between himself and Haines, which soon spirals out of control.

Familiar faces from popular TV dramas lead the cast. Christopher Harper as Charles Bruno is the standout performance of the evening. He perfectly captures the fine line between a psychotic, calculating villain and a vulnerable, child-like figure. Harper does not overplay the character, with the audience not knowing whether to laugh or gasp at his audacious plotting and infantile behaviour. Jack Ashton’s Guy Haines acts as a strong contrast to Harper’s Bruno. Ashton’s Haines moves from an assured confident man to a paranoid, conflicted shell of his former self, who is ultimately corrupted by his relationship with Bruno. Hannah Tointon’s Anne (Haines’s mistress turned fiancée) increases in depth of character as the play goes on, as she unravels the secrets surrounding her new husband. Bruno’s mother, Elsie (excellently realised by Helen Anderson), is a faded Southern Belle who is aware of, but does not want to accept, the fragility of her son. 

fantastic and enthralling
When John Middleton arrives in the Second Act, as the loyal private investigator, Arthur Gerard, we, as an audience, suspect that the elaborate crimes will soon be discovered, and the perpetrators will receive their come-uppance. But once again, all is not as it seems. The strength of the entire cast ensures that as their characters become more uneasy and volatile, the audience moves ever closer to the edge of their seats.

The set design by David Woodhead is ingenious. It is like an intricate puzzle of eight different sections, four on each level, which can be used in numerous configurations. From, the fateful first meeting in the railway carriage, to dingy bedsits to Bruno’s elegantly furnished home, different scenes are revealed by these sliding compartmentalised segments.  The scenes in which only one section is revealed create a claustrophobic feeling adding to the unease of the characters who inhabit them. At other times, we are able to have split scene locations on stage at the same time. The scenes are often evocative of Edward Hopper’s art, especially in the exchange between Haines and Bruno which takes place at a dimly lit bar. The set is mostly sleek yet shadowy, nicely mirroring the false, menacing facades of its protagonists. The scene in which Haines finally gives in to Bruno’s  pressure and starts to climb the moving, half glimpsed staircase towards Bruno senior’s bedroom is particularly memorable. As the story reaches its climax, all the sliding segments are drawn back from the stage, and hazy train lights emerge through billowing smoke towards the audience. There is a conflicting sense of release but also an overriding tension, as the two central characters are freed from the small set. Haines and Bruno had met on a train, and it seems fitting that their relationship should reach its tense and dramatic climax in the misty railway yard. It is here that their bizarre but absorbing relationship, comes to an end.

A fantastic and enthralling thriller, I would highly recommend going to see this production. True to the spirit of Highsmith and Hitchcock, this is an intriguing examination of the evil that can lurk just beneath the surface of everyday life. Just be careful who you talk to, next time you are on a train!

Second year English student.


30th January 2018 at 6:28 pm

Images from

The New Alexandra Theatre Production Images