First you get the book. Then you get the film of the book. Then you get the play of the film of the book. Sometimes you get the musical of the play of the film of the book. And somewhere in the middle of all this, new creativity gets suffocated in a cynical desire to rehash the same material just to make money. I ask you, is that right?
Rant over. I’ve not seen the film of The Girl on the Train, but I did buy the book for Mrs Chrisparkle as a Christmas present, in 2017. She hasn’t read it yet. And now that we’ve seen the play, there’s probably no point. However, I got the feeling that the majority of the (nearly full house) audience on Thursday last had indeed either seen it, or read it, or both. Experiencing the same story in a second, third or even fourth format must be like the Arts equivalent of comfort eating. You don’t need it to nourish you, but it can be especially satisfying. So I guess that answers my question in paragraph 1, above.
Rachel has a drink problem. She wakes up one morning on the kitchen floor with an unexplained injury to her forehead and puke in a pizza box. Ex-husband Tom calls to warn her that a witness saw her overnight in the area where a young woman, Megan, was last seen before going missing, so the police might ask her about it. Before long, Rachel has tracked down Megan’s husband Scott, pretending that she and Megan were old friends, and has set up an appointment with Megan’s therapy counsellor. The trouble is, the further that Rachel gets involved with the investigation, the harder it is for her to extricate herself from it…
The first thing that struck me about this story, whilst I was watching it, was its similarities to the Bridge Theatre’s recent production of Alys Always, where the central character finds herself the only witness to a death and then manipulates the truth to her own advantage and financial benefit. Both Mrs C and I thought that the way that Rachel infiltrated Megan’s life, by befriending her husband Scott and challenging the professionalism of her therapist Kamal, was extremely far-fetched. Comparisons are odious, but Alys Always felt the much more realistic of the two plays. However, in the realm of stage thrillers, we both thought Girl on the Train was much more successful than the similarly structured Rebus: Long Shadows that toured a few months back. Most importantly, the final denouement is genuinely exciting and surprising, as your suspicions as to whodunit flip between three people over the final fifteen minutes, until your doubts are finally confirmed.
As can sometimes happen with a touring play, the Derngate stage is much wider than required for this production, and my guess is that if you’re sat on the extreme sides of the auditorium you might spend a lot of the evening looking at blank, black walls. Although, to be fair, the wide stage worked well for the tableau image that starts the second act, with Matt Concannon’s unnamed police officer staring very officiously at us as we made our way back into the auditorium after the interval. Apart from that, James Cotterill’s set is decently flexible, with Tom and Anna’s nice pad stacked neatly behind Scott’s lonely living room, which in turn is stacked behind Rachel’s rather sordid kitchen. Two office chairs dangle in and out to represent Kamal’s therapy suite, and the various train effects, including a bright strip of white light at the end, work dazzle with effectiveness.
Samantha Womack once again omits her Eurovision appearance from her programme bio, but us fans have long memories. She plays Rachel with superb sullenness, a confused, distressed person looking for clues not only to what happened to Megan, but also to pin down her own identity. There’s not a lot of light and shade in her character, but you do make a kind of journey of redemption with her throughout the course of the play. Rachel isn’t a likeable character by any means; but you’ve got to admire her survival instinct.
There’s an ensemble feel to the rest of the cast as their characters drift in and out of Rachel’s life, but I particularly enjoyed John Dougall as D I Gaskill, a meddling little man who delights in leaving his detective work at his front door, and Lowenna Melrose as Anna, Tom’s new wife, who becomes progressively more aggravated at constantly bumping into Rachel everywhere she goes. Oliver Hipwell plays Scott as a cool cucumber, easily manipulated and surprisingly unaffected by his wife’s disappearance; Adam Jackson-Smith is an apparently thoughtful on the surface Tom, but with secrets of his own; Naeem Hayat is convincing as the counsellor Kamal who doesn’t need much to break patient confidentiality; and Kirsty Oswald is an appealing Megan, a free spirit caught up in others’ power games, and whose red dress steadily turns black from the bottom up during the course of the evening. There must be a symbolic reason for this, but I’m blowed if I can work it out.
All in all, a smart little production, that perhaps delivered more than it promised, and I was certainly fully rapt in trying to be one step ahead in solving the crime from my seat in Row F. The company has a gruelling tour that carries on until November, with Newcastle, Dartford, Coventry, Nottingham, Shrewsbury, Dublin, Belfast, Brighton, Sheffield, Norwich, Guildford, Oxford, Canterbury, Birmingham, Aberdeen, Bradford, High Wycombe, Cambridge, Plymouth, Swindon, Bromley, Malvern, Woking, Eastbourne, Cardiff and Blackpool all still to come. If you enjoy a good stage thriller, this is for you!
Production photos by Manuel Harlan