Writer: Paula Hawkins
Adaptor: Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel
Director: Anthony Banks
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
The publicity for this theatre version of the bestselling novel by Paula Hawkins acknowledges its debt to the earlier adaptation into the DreamWorks film. But some of the novel’s authenticity is restored through its return home to a London location, a grittier, shabbier set of lifestyles, and a greater faithfulness to the messiness of the original, reflecting the damaged perspective of the central character: The most unreliable of narrators.
Samantha Womack headlines as Rachel Watson, the girl on the train, whose life is gradually falling apart. Her voyeuristic fascination with the lives of a couple whose home she passes on her daily commute leads her to witness mysterious events which gradually start to take hold of her life, as she shifts from witness to protagonist. The black hole at the centre of the story, one of many voids which link the narrative, is the missing wife, Megan Hipwell, whose apparently idyllic life forms the centrepiece of Rachel’s drunken fantasies. When Megan goes missing, Rachel’s intrusion into the life of the volatile Scott Hipwell, her own former husband Tom, and his new wife and child, draws her into the frame for involvement in Megan’s disappearance.
The producers of this theatrical rendering of the story will have been very conscious that most people in the audience will have read the book and/or seen the film version. Their challenge will have been to maintain the tension of a story where almost everyone knows the outcome. They do so by stripping the narrative back to its essential elements, cutting out peripheral characters and inessential details, and maintaining an unrelenting focus on Rachel’s battles with her own demons, her faltering memory, and the self-doubt that so many other characters reinforce for her.
This throws a huge burden on the shoulders of Samantha Womack, who is at the centre of every scene. It is a weight she carries with poise, and with great conviction, as she struggles from a vodka-addled wreck, to clear-sighted saviour of the hour. There is an honesty in every aspect of her portrayal of Rachel’s wretchedness, and her self-rescue from it. Most of the other central characters have nuanced relationships with the missing Megan, and the well-scripted scenes allow them to exploit the ambiguities. This is especially true for Oliver Farnworth, as Megan’s husband Scott, who is cast as the prime suspect, even while laying claim to be the victim.
Naeem Hayat, as the therapist Kamal Abdic, is another potential suspect, but also the repository of so many of Megan’s secrets, bound by professional integrity to maintain them, but compromised by the sexual relationship he enjoyed with his patient. He manages to retain our sympathies despite his weaknesses. The ghostly presence of Megan, played by Kirsty Oswald, returns in background flashbacks, or in interactions with other characters, to patch the mystery together, and to keep her loss as the central void of the story. John Dougall, as Detective Gaskill, is superb casting. His Scottishness enhances the authenticity of the play, his humour lightens it, and his earthiness gives it a grounding anchor. His reluctance to rely on Rachel’s version of events helps to sustain the uncertainty until the play’s thrilling ending.
Given that this story has worked so well as a novel, and arguably as a film, why re-tread it as a play, and does it work in this format? After all, many great novels make for dire theatre. (Try Nicholas Nickleby). Many of those leaving a packed Lowry theatre probably wondered why they had bothered with the film. The murder mystery thriller genre is a theatre staple, even a cliche, but handled well, it works superbly. And here, every trick in the modern theatre armoury is deployed to keep the story rattling along the tracks, and the tension mounting as masks shift and the fog of drunken memory lifts.
The stage design and management are superb. The sets slip, slide and revolve effortlessly into one another; the projection of moving images – as if from a train window – links scenes and provides an insistant momento; sound is used sparingly but always to good effect; lighting is slick and usually used with great subtlety, but adds drama when occasion demands.
This play is at the start of a nationwide tour, having opened in Edinburgh the week before. The original story is of such quality, and this adaptation of such merit, that it could well be delighting audiences many years into the future. Long after the DVD’s have hit the charity shops.
Runs at The Lowry until 6 April 2019 | Image: Manuel Harlan