Tuesday 5 March 2019

The Girl on the Train

Curve, Leicester
4th March, 2019

I have to finish my story

In the programme for The Girl on the Train (adapted from Paula Hawkins’ bestselling novel), there is an article about the enduring appeal of the thriller, both to audiences and theatres. Referencing The Mousetrap as the epitome of stage thrillers, the one room eight-suspect whodunit engages the inner-sleuth in all of us and works as satiating entertainment at a relatively low cost for producers. The Girl on the Train is more contemporary, both in its subject and staging. There is a strong balance between a suspenseful whodunit that drives the play and a psychological element about memory and control, and abusive relationships. Anthony Banks’ competent production (although not without some awkward moments) successfully adds momentum, movement and suspense.

Brought to the stage in Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel’s occasionally stilted adaptation, Hawkins’ story starts with the Rachel, a divorced alcoholic living in a grimy bedsit. On the train each day, Rachel goes by the big house she used to live in and understandably becomes obsessed with the life she’s lost. One of the neighbouring houses becomes the centre of a fantasy: the perfect couple kissing on the terrace in their leafy suburban home. And then that woman goes missing, and all eyes are on our unreliable protagonist.

A big question in the play is about Rachel’s autonomy and the ‘black holes in her memory’. This motif is cleverly utilised in both text and design. In the missing woman’s (Kirsty Oswald as Megan) home, a vortex-like artwork hangs on the wall with a black hole in the middle. The emptiness in the middle of it, what that space is supposed to represent, and who has control of that is a key interest. This is also expressed visually in James Cotterill’s set. A black box welcomes both real worlds (smoggy underpasses, one-room flats, large and stylish London family homes) and visual representations of memory and fiction. On the whole, it’s a clever design which is exciting to watch, also thanks to Jack Knowles’ theatrical lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s cinematic (uber-theatrical?) projection. However, it’s occasionally clunky, with an odd mid-scene blackout and possibly the most ridiculous way of getting two chairs onto a stage ever achieved. Samantha Womack brings an arsenal of experience from EastEnders to the dramatically demanding role of Rachel. She’s a character in the throes of a crisis who doesn’t know if she can trust herself, after years of having had her sanity questioned and doubt drip-fed into her rationality. Womack conveys all of this very well and carries the play through its two hours. Also impressive is John Dougall as DI Gaskill. His character is very well written, fleshing him out so he’s more than just a 2-D detective but also an interesting character in his own right that sways against type.

In some ways, The Girl on the Train is a well-staged, entertaining-enough soap. But on another note, Banks and the rest of the creative team have redefined what the thriller can be and look like in the 21st century. After seeing several poor thrillers on the touring circuit last year, The Girl on the Train, probably thanks to its contemporary setting and relatable characters (an OAP Sherlock Holmes with a crack addiction didn’t quite work for me), is a sure-fire hit. To back up this point, the producers have just extended the tour by an extra 14 weeks. And in my mum’s opinion, who was a big fan of the novel, it’s much better than the Americanised film!

The Girl on the Train plays at Curve, Leicester, until 9th March and then tours until November 2019. For further information about tour dates, please see http://girlonthetrainplay.com/

Samantha Womack in The Girl on the Train. Credit: Manuel Harlan

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