The star of this show is the set.
This is a play set in many different locations, some concurrently, with scenes played out in a train, an assortment of hotel rooms and private homes, yet we are convinced we are seeing adobe, empire, traditional Manhattan and brutalist modernist buildings, all played out on a faded stars and stripes, perhaps a nod to the fading glory of that once great nation.
Strangers On A Train
Grand Opera House, York
Till Sat Mar 10
The play opens, as you might expect, on a train, where two strangers, not a little inebriated, confide perhaps too much of their lives to each other.
It becomes very clear that Charles Bruno (played by Chris Harper) has an agenda and persuades Guy Haines (Jack Ashton) to enter into a pact to kill each other’s biggest problem.
For Guy it’s his ex-wife who has become a bit of a stalker and whose influence is destroying his joy in architecture; for Charles, it is his father, who is starving him of funds.
It is clear though that for Guy this is no more than laddish alcoholic foolery and he is somewhat shocked when shortly after his ex-wife is murdered.
Act one then takes us through the manipulation, blackmail, and manoeuvring of Guy by Charles to achieve the quid pro quo murder of his father.
The cast, with the set, begins to show us just how isolated and lonely each of the protagonists is and how the murder, and Charles’ machinations, isolates Guy to the point where his guilt drives him to complete the task.
We see Charles’ almost incestuous dependence on his mother (Helen Anderson), his abandonment by his father, and Guy’s disassociation with his dreams and ambitions.
The play is, in many ways, a series of tableaux, either explicit in the direction or implicit as the actors describe off-scene events: the infidelity of Marion (Guy’s ex-wife); her murder; and each tableau moves the story forward.
The second act is anchored by the investigation by Charles’ father’s best friend and detective, Arthur Gerrard (John Middleton).
In turn he manipulates and manoeuvres Charles as he digs into the circumstances surrounding the murder. Charles’ isolation prevents him from doing the sensible thing and staying away from Guy but he keeps returning establishing a not quite adulterous relationship with Guy’s new wife, Anne (Hannah Tointon) – and there is an almost homoerotic stalking of Guy himself.
Brilliant and accurate
This is where Highsmith’s story is so perceptive. Murder, killing someone, changes the killer: the inevitable consequences of discovery, incarceration and probable execution are no longer a deterrent and guilt eats one up.
For Guy, this begins when he discovers that it was Charles acting on his drunken agreement and the removal of the impediment to his ambition becomes an impediment in itself.
For Charles, the loneliness and need for a friend who has also killed that leads to the unravelling of his rather unhealthy dependence on his mother.
In many ways this story harks back to the Greek and Shakespearean tragedies where the inner furies exact a terrible toll. Yet this is not a tragedy because it is also a story of redemption, it is not a procedural because nobody is locked up – it is a slice of real life.
The cast, aided and abetted by the marvellous set, set about persuading us from the beginning that they are, each in their own way, lonely, desperate and isolated.
Helen Anderson and Hannah Tointon brilliantly and accurately portray the 1940s upper middle class mother and wife, Jack Ashton the drifting into victimhood failing to relate to an increasingly worried wife and Chris Harper, the inevitable consequences of lonely dependence, while confidently acting as a master manipulator.
John Middleton as Arthur Gerrard, the logical ex-policeman piecing together the relationship between Guy and Charles and who’s piercing analysis drives the conclusion.
There are problems. In the first scene I wanted Guy to tell Charles to get knotted; Charles on the 3.15 to London would get short shrift from most travellers, and that magical hip flask that seems to have a lot more whisky in it than the flask can carry.
The intimate moments between Anne and Guy, spoiled by the exigencies of projection, don’t quite convince one of the depths of their relationship. And I for one seriously wanted Guy to do away with Charles instead of Charles’ father.
And that set: the perfect framework to emphasise the protagonist’s isolation, the physical movement between places far apart on the American sub-continent and the masterful last scene where the absence of the procession of confined spaces tells us that something, everything, has changed.