With David Suchet hanging up his waxed moustache, the best place to get your whodunit kicks is now the West End, either in form of genuine thriller The Woman in Black or glorious movie pastiche The 39 Steps. Adding to their number is this engrossing adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel Strangers on a Train, and if it sometimes falls between the two stools, it’s still deliciously dark entertainment.
Less a ‘whodunit’ than a ‘whydunit’, Highsmith’s premise is ingeniously simple. Aspiring architect Guy meets laconic, alcoholic playboy Bruno on a train, and the strangers share their problems – Guy has a destructive, serially unfaithful wife, Bruno a financially controlling father. The latter proffers the perfect solution: they commit each other’s murders, and the police will never suspect a connection between them. Guy demurs, but, crucially, in such a way that Bruno reads an implicit agreement and eagerly carries out his share of the bargain.
This violent act is the highpoint of a production with strikingly stylish visual language, as Miriam (MyAnna Buring, dynamic as the slyly girlish Southern belle in a sadly brief appearance) meets her grisly end juxtaposed with a cosy, old-fashioned fairground. That Bruno takes quasi-sexual enjoyment in his murder of a woman both childlike and mother-to-be, and, when recounting it to Guy, also detached professional pride, only adds to its creeping, unshakeable horror.