Writers: Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel, based on the book by Paula Hawkins
Director: Anthony Banks
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Rachel’s life is in ruins. Her once perfect marriage to Tom is over thanks to her alcoholism and her behaviour when drunk; indeed, she gets so drunk, she has blackouts and often can’t remember exactly what she has done. To add insult to injury, Tom is remarried and new wife Anna has given him a daughter, something Rachel could not do.
Rachel’s morning rail commute takes her past her old house. Staring out, she sees another couple, Scott and Megan. Their life seems so perfect through the train window that she builds a fantasy backstory for them. But then, Megan goes missing around the time that Rachel saw something disturbing at her, Megan’s, house and was later nearby ranting drunkenly at Tom and Anna, making Rachel a person of interest to the police. But she has no recollection of that night. How did she get those injuries to her head? She feels compelled to get to know Scott in real life and secrets are gradually uncovered that will ultimately solve the riddle of what happened to Megan.
The Girl on the Train is based on the Paula Hawkins’ publishing phenomenon that was a worldwide bestseller in 2015 and that, with the action transplanted to America, became a successful film in 2016. This adaptation brings the action back to the home counties. The book is complex, using three first-person narrators, Rachel, Anna and Megan, at least one of whom is unreliable, to tell its story. How can one translate this onto the stage?
The answer lies in the teamwork central to the success of any complex venture; together the adaptors, Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel, the director, Anthony Banks and designers James Cotterill (set and costume) and Jack Knowles (lighting) bring us a disorienting tale using harsh monochromatic lighting, clever use of colour palettes, haunting soundscapes, characters that loom out of the darkness and an imaginative set that allows us to visit all our protagonist’s homes as well as providing flashbacks personal to each character as the true story emerges. The whole is almost gothic in feel.
And, of course, there are the performances: Samantha Womack brings us the defeated Rachel, consumed with her crusade against Tom’s new life. This is a nuanced performance from Womack showing how the unreliable Rachel can swing from composed to hysterical, from assured to confused, even as she tries to make sense of her fragmented memories of that night. Oliver Farnworth brings us Scott, the bereft husband whom Rachel is compelled to befriend because of the narrative she has built around Scott and Megan. Farnworth brings us Scott’s confusion and loss of direction well as he casts around to make sense if it all. Adam Jackson-Smith is Tom, somewhat understated as he tries to appeal to Rachel, tries to reason out how she could have wound up with the injuries she has, tries to tease out any memory she might have of that night.
Flitting between the central characters is DI Gaskill (John Dougall), tasked with making sense of the conflicting and incomplete accounts he receives. He is a source of stability as he gradually becomes privy to the events that night and their aftermath.
Central to any psychological thriller are the plot twists, the moments that conspire to be at once shocking and revealing, that elicit gasps from the watching audience. And there are plenty of branch lines and sidings in this complex piece, ultimately to the extent that, despite strong performances all round, we never quite emotionally invest in the characters. The pace is steady throughout with little variation, while the build-up and periodic release of tension don’t quite work. The whole is heavy with symbolism, leavened at times by unexpected and welcome humour, but we feel that we are watching the construction of an intricate jigsaw rather than being taken on a winding journey around and to the truth. One can certainly appreciate the artistry of the creative team, the loose ends are all ultimately tied in a satisfying way but one leaves with a nagging feeling of not quite being sated.
The Girl on the Train provides a visual feast and high-quality performances, but ultimately doesn’t quite arrive at its intended destination.
Runs Until 23 March 2019 and on tour | Image: Manuel Harlan