REVIEW: The Girl on the Train – A psychological thriller that is on the right track

Oliver Farnworth and Samantha Womack in The Girl on the Train: Photo by Manuel Harlan

Venue: Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

Performance Date: 18 March 2019

Star Rating: ★★★1/2

If psychological, voyeuristic thrillers are your thing then make your way to Wolverhampton Grand where the adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ smash hit novel The Girl on the Train is playing until Saturday 23 March.

Adapting psychological thrillers for the stage is always a tricky affair and the earlier incarnation of this production received incredibly mixed reviews during its run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds. The play is now embarking on a UK and Ireland tour with a refreshed cast starring Samantha Womack (Eastenders) as protagonist Rachel Watson.

Rachel is a barely functioning neurotic alcoholic who, during her daily commute becomes obsessed with a seemingly perfect couple that she observes through the train window. She spends hours fantasising about the couple as escapism from her own piteous existence. When Rachel finds herself embroiled in a possible crime she becomes fixated on learning the truth and in turn unravels dark secrets that are far closer to home than she could ever have imagined.

A wildly popular novel, The Girl on the Train has sold over 20 million copies worldwide. Such was its success that in 2014 the film rights were acquired by Dreamworks Pictures and the film adaptation starring Emily Blunt was released in October 2017. Adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel, this production of The Girl on the Train is directed by Anthony Banks.

It was always going to be interesting to see just how the creative’s would adapt a novel (and subsequent film) that relies so heavily on the train scenes for contextualisation. As it happens the train scenes are largely scaled down but still handled effectively thanks to the clever lighting and projection designed by Jack Knowles and Andrzej Goulding respectively.

Samantha Womack does not shy away from heavily conflicted and emotionally damaged characters. Her portrayal of the tortured and doomed Ronnie Mitchell in Eastenders saw her tackle some gritty and hard-hitting story-lines over several years. In contrast, Womack is also an incredibly versatile musical theatre actress and has won plaudits for her recent turn as Morticia Addams in The Addams Family UK tour having previously taken on leading roles in South Pacific and Guys and Dolls throughout the course of her career.

Womack truly excels in the role of Rachel; her performance finely balances Rachel’s self-destructive tendencies, with her obsessive and compulsive personality without seeming melodramatic. Although still an incredibly unreliable narrator, Womack’s interpretation makes Rachel more likeable and rational than her film and book incarnations. Her performance is incredibly nuanced and even when she isn’t the centre of the scene she is omnipresent, her facial expressions betraying her feelings as the action unfolds around her.

The wider cast is strong, with former Coronation Street actor Oliver Farnworth believable as the hot-headed and short-tempered Scott, one half of the ‘perfect’ couple that Rachel obsesses over.  Adam Jackson-Smith is perfectly cast as Rachel’s frustrated and unfaithful ex-husband Tom Watson.

The remainder of the cast is made up of John Dougall as investigating police officer DI Gaskill, Naeem Hayat as therapist Kamal Abdic, Lowenna Melrose as Anna Watson, and Kirsty Oswald as Megan Hipwell. Phillipa Flynn and Matt Concannon make up the ensemble.

Each character cleverly weaves in and out of the narrative, none more likeable than the other in what feels like a constant psychological game of cat and mouse, with Rachel (and the audience) never knowing quite who to believe. In fact, it’s nigh on impossible to root for any of the characters as they are all so self-involved, morally bankrupt and generally rather unpleasant.

The cast is relatively small meaning that the play has sacrificed several characters from both the novel and the film. Rachel’s friend and housemate Cathy, doesn’t feature at all, neither does the character of Martha who was created specifically for the film. The film’s director Tate Taylor has previously explained that the purpose of Martha is to visually facilitate Rachel’s eventual ‘light bulb moment’, where everything suddenly clicks in to place.

Whilst the character omissions aren’t detrimental in the main, the absence of Martha, in particular, does dilute Rachel’s eventual moment of clarity, which in the end is a slight non-event. As a result, the overall suspense and twists lead to a somewhat frantic final scene, which begins and ends just that bit too abruptly.

Overall, The Girl on the Train is a solid adaptation and it ticks most boxes of a good psychological thriller. The play offers a firsthand and in-depth look at Rachel’s dissolving sense of reality, moral ambiguity and the complex relationships between obsessive and pathological characters and how they have eventual fatal consequences.

The Girl on the Train plays at Wolverhampton Grand until Saturday 23 March.

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