For the uninitiated, The Girl On The Train was a 2015 bestselling novel by Paula Hawkins. I’m a fan of the book, with Hawkins writing well-rounded characters and a twisty-turny plot, but how does this gripping thriller translate from page to stage?
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**The Alexandra Theatre invited us to attend The Girl On The Train press night, receiving complimentary tickets and a glass of red wine or two in exchange for an honest review. Thoughts – as always – are my own. And occasionally those of Mr Fletche**
Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel have adapted the book for this production, and have coped well with turning the largely internal monologues of the novel into a stage play which allows the characters to vocalise their feelings and emotions. Part of this is down to ingenious staging, dramatic lighting and intense performances from the small cast.
I must confess to not watching the 2015 film, especially after hearing how they’d changed key elements – transferring the location to New York for one jarred with me, as did the casting of Emily Blunt. Samantha Womack though is somehow more convincing as our downtrodden anti-hero Rachel. This production, directed by Anthony Banks, stays much more true to Hawkins’ novel, although there is some sloughing off of peripheral characters (where art thou Cathy?) in order to keep the cast small and the production slick.
In the tradition of Strangers on a Train and Murder on the Orient Express this whodunit unfolds to the background of a mundane train journey – an unnecessary commute for unemployed Rachel but a journey she has become obsessed with as she watches domestic drama unfold from her window seat. She longs for a different life, a more glamorous life. A life where she’s not struggling with loneliness and rejection. A life where she doesn’t have a drink problem which is leading to ever-increasing lapses in memory.
As she sits in her bottle-strewn flat, surrounded by discarded pizza boxes which are occasionally used as receptacles to catch vomit, she obsesses over the couple that she spies on from the window of the train every morning. She envies their apparently perfect life and perfect marriage. But Rachel has witnessed something amiss. And when she finds out that local woman Megan is missing, presumed dead, she is determined to solve the mystery, to give some purpose to her unravelling life and to save herself.
There are possible suspects and red herrings aplenty as a missing person enquiry turns into a murder investigation. Especially when it turns out that far from being perfect strangers, Megan and her husband Scott’s lives are already intertwined with that of Rachel, her ex-husband Tom and his new wife Anna.
Former Eastenders star Samantha Womack is on stage for almost the entire two hour show. She delivers an almost effortless semi-drunk performance with emotional intensity which must leave her exhausted. We feel her isolation and we pity her for this spiral of self-loathing she is in. We applaud her tenacity and controlled ferocity even when she is in DI Gaskell’s spotlight as suspect.
The dour detective Gaskell, played by John Dougall, provides a few light-hearted moments to ease the tension. Adam Jackson-Smith plays Rachel’s long-suffering ex-husband Tom. Tom is eager to put Rachel and her issues in the past and concentrate on Anna and their new baby. Kirsty Oswald as Megan delivers the show’s most powerful monologue – she’s clearly full of mystery and secrets. Watch out for the clever subtle costume change as her life is turned upside down.
Naeem Hayat portrays Megan’s oversharing therapist Kamal Abdic. Most of his lines are delivered to the audience and he still manages to be convincing. Womack has a crackling chemistry with those that she shares the stage with, particularly with Oliver Farnsworth who plays Scott – two desperate people trying to find answers.
The stage is simple yet effective. The mesmerising set design by James Cotterill is wonderfully juxtaposed with Jack Knowles’ clever lighting. Rachel’s alcohol-befuddled visions are depicted through video projections designed by Andrzej Goulding. The lights and sounds are designed to be jarring, to unsettle the audience.
Even though I knew how the story would end I found myself holding my breath as we reached the climax. It’s not subtle and there’s lots of signposting if you care to go back and analyse the story, but The Girl On The Train is certainly a train worth catching.
Don’t miss out on the opportunity to watch The Girl On The Train UK Tour. The show runs at Birmingham’s Alexandra Theatre until Saturday 31st August. You can book your tickets here. It continues touring until November 2019 – for the full tour schedule click here.
Production photos used with permission. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan