DramaReviewSouth West

The Girl on the Train – Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Writer: Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel (based on the novel by Paula Hawkins)

Director: Anthony Banks

Reviewer: Joan Phillips

When The Girl on the Train was first published in 2015 it caused a publishing phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic for author Paula Hawkins. It was quickly snapped up for adaptation on the big screen and became a hugely successful hit for actress Emily Blunt. This stage version, currently touring nationally, has been adapted from Hawkins’ original by Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel.

The main character in this story is Rachel Watson (Samantha Womack), still commuting to work past her previous marital home, where ex, Tom (Adam Jackson-Smith), is now living with his second wife, Anna (Lowenna Melrose), and new baby. A few doors down from her previous home a new couple have moved in, the seemingly loved-up Scott Hipwell (Oliver Farnworth) and Megan (Kirsty Oswald). We know all this because Rachel watches them through the windows of their homes which back on to the railway line she uses. If she isn’t already beginning to sound like some unhealthy stalker, we soon find out it is worse than that. Rachel frequently turns up drunk at the home of her ex and his new family to abuse, and sometimes threaten, the new wife.

Raising our discomfort, even more, we learn that part of the reason for the breakdown of her marriage to Tom was her inability to have children. Even before the break-up, Rachel’s drinking had got out of hand, confessing to blackouts. Since the split, there seems hardly a moment when she is sober. The contrast with the life enjoyed by those where she used to live compared to the tiny, grimy, claustrophobic apartment she lives now tells us just how low Rachel has fallen. When Megan Hipwell is found brutally murdered in an alley not far from home, Rachel’s obsessive behaviour starts to look uncomfortably sinister.

Enter D.I. Gaskill (John Dougall) who investigates the trail of suspects and motives, aided, or frustrated, by the unreliability of Rachel’s contradictory statements and her inability to explain her whereabouts at the moment of the murder or why she herself has head wounds. Add to this some very odd behaviour, as Rachel insinuates herself first into Scott’s trust, and then into Megan’s therapist’s confidence.

It is a perfect set up for a suspense-filled thriller. But oddly this stage version doesn’t quite pull it off. While we are introduced to the possible motives of each suspects there is never a moment when the suspicion lingers on anyone long enough. Neither, are there periods when we really believe either Rachel did it, or that she even believed she did it which is rather central to the plot of coercion. There is hardly a period when are we even asked to believe that the detective really believes she did it. It is an odd decision to have Rachel at all times fully two steps ahead of the detective – he is almost irrelevant. Neither is it explained what leads Rachel to the moment of realisation of what actually happened.

With suspicions not being allowed to linger on any one suspect at a time and seemingly moving with each scene change, audience tension is unable to rise and fall with each new revelation in the story and the opportunity for that huge rise in suspense as the story came to its crisis point does not fully materialise.

Samantha Womack, on stage throughout, puts in a solid performance as Rachel, successfully nuancing the changes of her emotional state as she gains control of her life, without ever being tempted to overplay her drunken state. James Cotterill’s set allows for scenes in Rachel’s grimy flat to swiftly contrast with the light and spacious homes she was more used to. Most dramatic is the use of Jack Knowles’ lighting to suggesting trains flashing past.

It is always great to see on the theatre’s season schedule a good story of intrigue and suspense in there among the musicals, ballets, operas and dramas. The stage version of The Girl on the Train doesn’t quite bring you to the edge of your seat, but it gets very close.

Runs until Saturday 5th October then touring | Image: Manuel Harlan

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