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Review of Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train

Reviewed by Clive Lees.  Play date Saturday, 7 March 2020

This was director Andrew Newbon’s first main house play and he deserves much credit for delivering an excellent show and allowing his cast to deliver memorable performances.  There was much inventiveness and creativity on display which all helped to make for a fine night out.

I’m tempted to say that the reason to see this play is Scott James.  James, playing Charles Bruno, one of the ‘strangers’ on the train, gave the most effective, crafted and embodied characterisations I think I have ever seen at BLT.  He completely inhabited the manipulative and psychopathic Bruno to great effect, with each element of Bruno’s character being skilfully nuanced.  He was certainly channelling a platonic dark horse (see the play to understand this reference) and one can only hope that it wasn’t his own!

But to concentrate on James would be unfair to the other cast members and production as a whole.  There was much to be admired here.  The play opens in a railway station which ordinarily might be dull.  Yet, the dramatization and staging of crowds of people simply being in a station was original and clever and thus the viewer was gripped from the off.  Similarly, the illusion of being on a moving train was also inventive and the use of projectors and sound to enhance the sense of motion were skilfully employed.

Robert O’Neill, as Guy Haines, and Scott James made a pair of believable strangers.  O’Neill, credibly playing the successful and polished young Haines, was very realistic in portraying the difficulties of resisting a powerful and manipulative personality and how one can get drawn, irresistibly, down a path one doesn’t want to go.

I particularly liked Megan McGery’s Anne Faulkner.  It was a delightful depiction of an innocent bride and wife, who could, when pressed, stand up for herself.  On the face of it, it seemed a simple role, if any acting is simple, compared to say Bruno, but was it simple?  Maybe the art was all about bringing subtle nuance to the role.  Either way, it worked very well and McGery brought an essential lightness, and indeed love, to balance what is in essence, a dark play.

Richard Gissing as the Private Investigator Arthur Gerard also caught my eye, seemingly very at home as an archetypal American ‘Gumshoe’. The play could have done with more of this character: Gerard’s dismantling of the criminal conspiracy brought a counterpoint and balance to the powerful sense of malice and psychopathy and the play would have benefited with more of it.  However brilliant the portrayal of Bruno, I felt there was a bit too much of it in the play.

What of technical matters?  The set was complex as it had to provide for around 12 different locations which perforce meant it had to be fairly bland in appearance.  It also meant that at times it felt a little cramped but I do not see how this could have been avoided.  The set was substantial and took considerable effort and ingenuity to build it (transparency: I helped!).

I particularly liked one of the special effects where a pre-filmed clip of someone climbing stairs seamlessly morphed into live action.  Strictly speaking, it wasn’t really necessary, but it was clever, worked well and demonstrates the boundless ambition of the theatre to be as sophisticated as possible.

Sound and lights were generally effective.  Of course, one hardly notices effective sound and lights but, paying attention, one can see how essential they are to the overall scheme of things and how they contribute to the overall feel.  Sometimes, it seems as if a bit of magic was being used  – in the final scene, I’m sure the bridge, a ‘plot device’, appeared from nowhere and I was left wondering how that was done.  I think it was an example of the lighting team’s technical skill. 

One criticism of the show would be the gunshot.  It was almost inaudible in the back row and even quieter than the gunshot when the dog ‘bought it’ in ‘Of Mice and Men’ in 2017.  Surely it should be a loud deafening crack?  One can only presume there is an insurmountable technical issue preventing a realistic gunshot but it would be good if the theatre could find a way of doing this well.

The denouement was genuinely moving, done well and brought the play to a fine conclusion – so often plays seem to fizzle out because the playwright doesn’t know how to end them well, but not this one.  And it was thought provoking too: was the whole ghastly mess redeemed by the love, understanding and forgiveness of a wife or was she, too, complicit in murder?  My reaction answered that question.