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REVIEW – Strangers on a Train

You may recognise the title of this stage drama by Craig Warner, adapted from the 1950 novel Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, because Alfred Hitchcock produced a cinematic adaptation of the same original novel in a 1951 film also of the same name. Both Craig Warner and Phyllis Spencer, who directs this current production for Wimborne Drama, are keen to stress that this stage play is not the same as the film – even though it shares the same source. I have neither read the novel, nor seen the film (though I had a vague notion of the latter), so I was coming to it without any preconceived notions.

It is immediately apparent, if you know the Tivoli, that half the depth of the stage is missing and that is because this production makes by far the best use of back-projected scenery that I have seen. Projection equipment, by Skrypt (Dorchester), puts the images of the train’s dining car, the houses of the protagonists, several other static scenes and some video footage, onto a gauze. Doing it this way and with an appropriately short-throw projector means that the projected images can span the width of the stage and shadows are not cast by the actors or the downstage set items – but it does limit the depth of the stage. The action takes place on three static “zones” at the front of the stage, which are appropriately illuminated while the sets in the other zones are changed. Somewhat surprisingly it all works – though (on opening night) there were a few transitions where the lights coming up and the lights going down were not as seamless as they might be.

One could conjecture all sorts of psychological interpretations as to whether the relationship between Charles Bruno (Richard Cawte) and his mother (admirably portrayed here by Judy Garrett) are responsible for his world view and for his controlling and sociopathic personality – we have terms for these behaviours these days that hadn’t been invented in the 1950s, but that isn’t the purpose of this review. What I will say is that Richard Cawte is both chilling and utterly convincing in the part of Bruno, as Rob Cording-Cook also convinces as Guy Haines: the White Horse to Bruno’s Black and the other half of the two strangers of the title. Jemma Cable is well cast as Haine’s partner, Anne, and there are moving emotional scenes between them as Haines’ drive and personality disintegrates due to the influence of Bruno.

Richard Scotson bursts, refreshingly, onto the stage as Haines’ old college chum, Robert Treacher, early in the second act – but then is seen no more, while James Bourner features throughout as Haines’ business colleague, Frank Myers. Colin Pile plays a good supporting role as the private detective Arthur Gerard – who pieces together what has happened, even though we, the audience, have already seen it happening. All good stuff, but my top marks go to Richard Cawte and Rob Cording-Cook for their virtuoso performances as the two Strangers on a Train.

I can normally retain a reserved distance while reviewing a play, but this time my objectivity failed me, as I found myself drawn into this intense psychological drama, which was so well produced and performed.

This is a show worth watching – if you can get a ticket. Tonight’s opening perfomance was all but sold-out (and it deserved to be) but if you are lucky you may be able to grab tickets for Friday (18th) at 19:30 or Saturday (19th) October at 14:30 and 19:30.