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The Girl on the Train at The Lowry Theatre
Image © The Lowry via Flickr

The Girl on the Train at Duke of York’s Theatre, London

6 August 2019 | Kate Plummer

What if you were the only one with the information to unlock the truth behind a terrible crime, but you can’t trust your own memory? This is the question at the heart of The Girl on the Train, the 2015 smash hit debut novel from Paul Hawkins which spawned a stateside-set cinematic adaption a year later with Emily Blunt taking on the lead, and is now touring the UK in Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel’s stage production where EastEnders favourite, Samantha Womack, tackles the complex role of Rachel Watson. 

Some spoilers ahead.

After losing her husband to another woman who now lives in her old home, Rachel has turned to alcoholism. She creates a fantasy narrative, spying on a seemingly perfect couple from her old neighbourhood through the window of the daily London commuter train. However, when Rachel wakes up with blood on her hands and no memory of how it got there, only to discover the perfect woman she’s been watching has disappeared, she becomes entangled in a missing persons case attempting to uncover the truth locked somewhere inside her mind and facing old demons. 
 
What made the novel so gripping was the three narrative strands of Rachel, victim Megan, and new wife Anna, with chapters giving the characters room to breathe and take shape; a device that was only touched on in the film adaptation and mostly done away with here, although thanks to the limitations of theatre that can be partly forgiven and the theme of motherhood and its impacts to each of the three women, particular Rachel and Megan, is a pleasing compromise. 
 
The cast as a whole gave solid performances with the material they had to work with, which at times felt lacking in its subtleties and heavy on the exposition, with the dry humour of Alex Fern’s DI Gaskill, and Kirsty Oswald’s emotional monologue recalling Megan’s past trauma shining through.  
 
Womack as Rachel is confident in her performance, particularly in the first act where she plays the drunk and often disorderly Rachel with conviction without going over the top as is easy to do with stage drunkenness. Rachel isn’t a character to be necessarily liked, often doubted but always rooted for, which Womack passes off well, however by act two when the character sobers up the performance leans towards the expressing raised tension through shouty delivery trope which is a product of the lacklustre script and Womack trying her best to wring the suspense of it, but without much tension there it falls a little flat. 
 
The biggest flaw for me was of the character of Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom. Whilst played with the right level of surface-level charm by Adam Jackson-Smith, he isn’t featured enough throughout the play to really build on the themes of manipulation and gaslighting which as a result become far too subtle, meaning the conclusion seems like a giant leap that could be frustrating for those familiar with the plot and downright confusing to those who aren’t. In a production that makes frequent use of a flashback device, one more highlighting the big reveal inside Rachel’s memory would have been a welcome bridge to help the audience make the connections to lead to a more satisfying finale. 
 
James Cotterill’s set design is clever, if a little clunky in places, but when combined with Andrzej Goulding projections and Jack Knowles lighting design, it creates a slick backdrop to the narrative, with an impressive actualisation of the train scenes.
 
The Girl on the Train is, at its heart, about a woman dealing with immense trauma and the thriller aspect of the plot, the crime at its centre, is there to help unravel not just the truth of this crime, but the truth of herself and her life. Without the depth of detail that just can’t make it to stage, we’re left with a more straightforward whodunnit affair, which, whilst still entertaining and competently done, lacks the complexities of the novel that made it the gripping thriller that it was. 
 
The Girl on the Train is currently at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London until 17 August before touring the UK: 

Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury - 20 - 24 August 
The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham - 26 - 31 August 
His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen - 3 - 7 September 
The Alhambra Theatre, Bradford - 10 - 14 September 
Wycombe Swan - 17 - 21 September 
Cambridge Arts Theatre - 23 - 28 September 
Theatre Royal, Plymouth - 30 September - 5 October 
Wyvern Theatre, Swindon - 7 - 12 October 
Churchill Theatre, Bromley - 14 - 19 October 
Malvern Theatres - 21 - 26 October 
New Victoria Theatre, Woking - 28 October - 2 November 
Eastbourne Theatres - 4 - 9 November 
New Theatre, Cardiff - 12 - 16 November 
Blackpool Winter Gardens - 19 - 23 November 
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