The set for Strangers on a Train is ingeniously clever: a spinning curved triangle, allowing for different sets to be built into each side, with a simple rotation required to change the locale. And doorways provided for characters to move seamlessly from one set to another.
It distracts in a very obvious way because it’s not so seamless after all; adding and removing sets backstage proves to be exceptionally noisy work; at one point a stage hand is heard tripping over and dropping something. This is the first performance, so some of this is forgivable.Though, frankly, they can’t have not noticed the noise during rehearsal.
While the shifting sets can take us to the play’s many locales, what it can’t do is build the relationships upon which the story really turns. Highsmith’s book, which the play largely follows, revolves around duality, the contrasting natures of its leads, who, despite their differences, become drawn together as the plot unfolds.
The chemistry between the characters is nil. Jack Huston (masked in Boardwalk Empire, but instantly recognisable nevertheless) delivers his patter well, but he has the plumb role; Lawrence Fox has little work with.
It’s fine for his Guy to be a bit of a non-entity early on; his confidence has been damaged. But as things progress he remains a blank, a walking accent and little else. Making matters worse is his quiet delivery; he’s barely audible even when angry, making him seem less significant than even minor characters sharing the stage.
But the script and direction falters in other ways: speeches are all too frequently doled out to the characters, not only killing any dramatic tension, but leaving other characters nothing to do but listen long while the talk unfolds. One talks while others sit motionless and stare; no interruptions or reactions. When one character is told they’re likely to miscarry, in an achingly long chunk of dialogue, the only reaction they can muster is to roll over in bed.
The fast action and scene switching of the first half is enough to mask these issues; the set seems to hold place for only a few moments at a time. But when we reach the second half, where the action depends on the rising tension and the characters’ emotional collapse, it all grinds to a dull halt.
It’s all well and good bringing your play to life with a bit of technical wizardry, but when the whole play’s about human psychology, the time really could've been better spent.
Strangers on a Train plays at the Gielgud Theatre, London, until March 2014