There’s an art to adaptation across media, in finding a golden mean between fidelity to the existing work, bringing out its underlying themes and concerns, and striking out in an original direction. Leonard Cohen’s lyrics based on poems by Lorca and Cavafy manage it beautifully; so does John Huston’s film of James Joyce’s short story The Dead ; and now Huston’s grandson Jack stars in a further instance. Craig Warner’s play Strangers on a Train is officially “based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith”, but it nods also to the Alfred Hitchcock film version (scripted by Raymond Chandler), and effectively – extremely effectively – recycles Zola’s Thérèse Raquin for its final phase.
Those familiar with the film, in which charming psychopath Bruno meets conscientious but malleable Guy by chance on a train and suggests that they each kill the thorn in the other’s side, may be surprised to find that here, as in the novel, Guy caves in and fulfils his half of the “bargain”. Even those who know the novel will find the conclusion unfamiliar, with the two men effectively locked in a coupling of mutual recrimination and despair. This has, as I say, a more classical antecedent, but Warner makes it work beautifully. Huston and director Robert Allan Ackerman also settle on a more recent allusion, which is again borne out by the material: once you have Bruno pinned as an effete, alcoholic southern momma’s boy, it is entirely natural that he should look like Tennessee Williams.
Huston plays Bruno superbly, without a single hint of psycho cackling but rather as a comprehensive believer in his own abilities and personal magnetism, until his terminal illness suddenly sets in. As Guy, Laurence Fox quickly finds himself caught as if in the cobwebs of Peter Wilms’ stage projections and either crumbles quietly or cries in desolation rather than fragmenting more ostentatiously. Miranda Raison gives strong support as Guy’s wife, and Imogen Stubbs turns up the blowsiness as Bruno’s mother. Even the incidental music sounds like Hitchcock’s favourite composer Bernard Herrmann (there being no programme credit, it may in fact be a Herrmann score, although he did not work on the film of Strangers). Like Bruno’s insinuations, the power and compulsion of the play build slowly until you realise too late that you are altogether ensnared.