Here’s dark brilliance, a glimpse of the void.   The set itself is noir,  a tangled ever-changing revolving nightmare of city, fairground, mansion and and treescape.  The very costumes are monochrome: against a hundred shades of grey  there flickers a shine of 1940‘s platinum-blonde or a bride-white  negligée.    Tim Goodchild’s design, with remarkable lighting and projection by Tim Lutkin and Peter Wilms,  perfectly frame an unexpected and  heart-hammeringly tense evening.

Unexpected, because Hitchcock’s  famous 1951 film based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel went only halfway to hell.  Here Craig Warner has gone all the way, back to the book.   It begins like the film with two men meeting on a train – thoughtful quiet Guy and pushy, manic, overfriendly Charles Bruno.  The latter posits a fantasy in which they could baffle detection by doing one another’s murders.  He assumes that Guy would like to be rid of his unfaithful separated wife,  while he wants his father dead.   Guy thinks it is a bad taste joke.  It isn’t.  His wife is strangled at a fairground and Bruno nags him to fulfil his side.

Hollywood, anxious for virtue to triumph,  departed from Highsmith at this point.  But theatre seems tougher:  the whole of Act 2 is unfamiliar, and I will not rob you of one single gasp by spoiling it.    So let us talk instead of quality: something which Robert Allan Ackerman gets from his starry cast in plenty.

Laurence Fox is the architect Guy, at first so quiet one worries for his audibility in the train scene: but that  geeky pianissimo makes all the more dramatic his  flowering, or descent,  into panic and beyond.  I have never seen Fox operate at quite this level, and it pins you to your seat.    Still more alarming is Jack Huston’s Bruno: not the chill smiling psychopath of Hitchcock’s version but a manically unbalanced walking Oedipus-complex,  fixated (shades of Highsmith’s other antihero, Ripley)  on getting close to Guy himelf.  Huston disintegrates before our eyes.  The strangling scene  is mild compared to his recounting of it,   and when his parricidal fantasy unreels, high on a vertiginous staircase,  the tangled projections overhead seem to be a map of his very brain.

In the rising hysteria the women strike contrasting notes: Myanna Buring flame-haired and vampy as the victim wife, Miranda Raison cool, pure, and innocent until too late.  But wildest of all is Imogen Stubbs as Bruno’s mother: a glamorously fading, plaintive smother-mother played with an intensity worthy of a Tennessee Williams creation.  When the horrid truth overwhelms her in turn, the stage itself shivers.

It’s a classy bit of work,  not least because actual violence occurs only once before the end.  Poker, axe, flamethrower and gun seem to threaten,  but as Guy says  hell is all inside the skin.  A man can be hollowed out by evil: and that’s when  a mere thriller becomes an epic.

box office  0844 482 5130     to  22 feb
Rating:  four 4 Meece Rating

PS:  With the superb clarity of youth, my occasional companion Jennifer-Jane Benjamin has taken to delivering reviews with one-word-per-star.   Midsummer Night’s Dream was “Shouty, Mirthful, Gay”.    Strangers on a Train is “Bonkers, Incestuous, Clever, Creepy”.   Heaven knows what’ll happen when she hits five stars..


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