I came to this stage adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ bestselling book without having previously read the book itself or watched its cinematic counterpart, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. A disadvantage, because it means that I would not be able to evaluate any subtleties of the relationship between play and novel, and between play and film, that are strictly related to the adaptation process, nor truly gage how its predecessors informing the play; an advantage, because one of the recurring concerns of works adapted from reasonably well-known other media is that they are unable to stand on their own – that the audience’s mind automatically fills in the gap, making it possible to understand what’s going on when the information provided by the work itself would not be sufficient. This latter concern does non apply to this take on The Girl on the Train, which happily lives its own life as a perfectly readable work even for those who might be entirely unaware that it is based on a book. The reasonably contained space of the action helps, as it is relatively easy to recreate on stage; worthy of mention is the fact that the train protagonist Rachel takes to London every day is not just mentioned in talk, but represented in such a way that it becomes a centrepiece of the play, in many ways a fil rouge connecting it.
This is a production that is fond of connecting threads. A second viewing might be enlightening in revealing more of the details which, as in every good murder mystery, are scattered across the narrative, to only be noticed retroactively after its end. Non-verbal narrative is injected, for instance, in the way that the dress worn by victim Megan (Kirsty Oswald, giving a performance somewhat blurred around the edges, fitting for a character that is only seen through other people’s memories of her) transitions in colour from red to black as the action unfolds.There are many other such visual cues, some more evident than other; trying to spot them is an interesting exercise that deepens the understanding of a work that aims to be a mystery not just in the sense that there is a murder to be solved, but also in trying to figure out the workings of human nature in extreme situations.
It is a hard work to approach, because of the particular darkness of some facets of its subject matter (a very tense scene towards the end, I am sure, will have kept many an audience member on the edge of their seat), but also because of the fact that all of its characters appear to stand, more or less uncomfortably, in a moral grey area, perhaps to the sole exception of inspector Gaskill (a refreshingly down-to-Earth Matt Concannon, somehow the most relatable person on stage). Samantha Womack as Rachel, in particular, is faced with a truly daunting task as she gradually guides the audience into appreciating, liking, and caring for a character that is as we first encounter her, at face value, deeply problematic, even unlikable. Womack lends credibility to all aspects of Rachel’s personality and behaviour, the more sympathetic and the more unsavoury ones; her portrayal of alcoholism is starkly believable and when her true feelings and motivations are revealed, understanding comes easy.
The Girl on the Train is not a relaxed view. It is in many ways a classic murder mystery, but often one has the feeling that it is more concerned with investigating the psychological workings of its characters than in truly solving the murder; when the solution arrives, it is perhaps the least interesting thing that happens on stage, as the universes inside the heads of the characters are more compelling. Nonetheless, the production is wise in spinning many possible threads at once, so that until the very end the possibilities of what happened remain multiple and all open, and the audiences experiences sincere doubt, perhaps even apprehension, as to what will be revealed to be the truth. If nothing else, it is certainly a good thriller; but perhaps its greater value is precisely in the fact that it comes across as a story of real, credible people, acting in extreme circumstances and trying to make difficult choices.
Until November 16