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The Girl on the Train

by on 13 February 2019

Missed Connection

The Girl on the Train

by Paula Hawkins, adapted by Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel

Simon Friend in association with Amblin Entertainment at Richmond Theatre until 16th February, then tour continues until 23rd November

A review by Matthew Grierson

For a thriller, The Girl on the Train is rarely thrilling. In fact, it seems to have decided it is a comedy, so successful it is in generating laughs from the Richmond Theatre audience. There is scarcely a situation in the play that does not merit a titter, from the awkward encounters between Rachel, ex-husband Tom, new wife Anna and neighbour Scott, to Rachel’s repeated, blatant denial of her alcoholism. Rather than ratcheting up the tension or offering a bleak comment on it, humour remains the predominant mode of a play whose plot nonetheless hinges on the disappearance (spoiler: murder) of Scott’s wife Megan.

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This makes it all the more difficult to tell a serious, affecting story, and so the production largely does not choose to do so. Instead, it makes a virtue of staging it, never resorting to performance and direction when it can mount a stage effect. We can tell Rachel’s unfortunate condition because her kitchen is littered with a neat row of empties and artfully arranged bin-bags, as though set designer James Cotterill had been given the note ‘alcoholic’ and responded artfully but with little reference to reality. So genteel is the squalor that the number of references to Waitrose made me wonder whether the supermarket was actually paying the production to take away carrier bags rather than charging for them.

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As a consequence of the production-led storytelling, neither star Samantha Womack as Rachel nor most of the supporting cast are called upon to give convincing performances, simply do what is necessary to advance the plot. We are to believe that Rachel has not only been a regular commuter, but that she has persisted in her daily journey simply to observe Scott and Megan through the window of the train as it stops at a signal. Certainly, the presentation of this is very effective – a combination of projection and live action – but in order to establish that it has been Rachel’s routine she needs to explain as much in the dialogue. Show and tell may work in the classroom, but on stage? Please.

GirlTrain8The narrative depends on a sense of routine that, however it is established in prose (I confess I’ve not read Paula Hawkins’ novel, on which this is based), is not easily dramatised. Likewise, whatever the rationale for Rachel fantasising that Scott and Megan are actually called ‘Jason’ and ‘Jess’ in the book, it’s just an unnecessary complication on stage, particularly as we are introduced to them by their real names before those that the first Mrs Watson imagines.

Further stage effects are all we get to cement any sense of Rachel being an alcoholic, too. Womack’s performance never convinces in this respect; indeed, she never convinces as a character, because no insight is offered into why she chooses to involve herself in the mystery. Rather than Megan, it is she who is the absence from this play, a black hole around which the action orbits. If we’re in danger of missing the heavy hint of this given in Megan’s painting, Rachel’s alcoholism is most tellingly conveyed by the scene in which she returns home and traces the motif from the artwork on her window. Impressively, this spirals out into an audio-visual effect that giddies both her and the audience. She passes out in the floor and then it is the next day, as helpfully flagged by the Sherlock-style caption ‘Wednesday’ on the wall above her sink. Under the spell of sexy modern TV shows, the action hastens along.

GirlTrain4I feel I’m always banging on about the rhythm of a piece in my reviews (what can I say, I’m a trained poet and that training has to come in use somewhere), and if anything director Anthony Banks gets that rhythm exactly right. It observes a timetable in a manner that South Western Railways could only envy; but in being so punctual, we the audience are left unaffected because the production becomes more concerned with hitting its beats rather than hinting at character. There is more choreography than chemistry, for instance, in the love scene that suddenly begins between Rachel and Scott (Oliver Farnworth, who himself seems overly keen to get his dialogue spoken and done with), or in the upstage scene in which Megan exchanges possible paramours in flashback.

The play is committed to such a perfunctory tone. Pushed another way, it could become an arch, traditional thriller that simply happens to be set in the present day, spiced up with judicious use of the f-word; but even being generous to this piece one could not call it overacted. Or, it could have been a taut psychological study, in which even at the close we are never certain of Rachel’s story. Is she an alcoholic or a fantasist? Or both? As it is we do end up finding out, but crucially we don’t care – this is a fast service, content on letting us board but barely stopping till the terminus.

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GirlTrain3How welcome, then, is John Dougall as Inspector Gaskill for pitching his performance perfectly for all eventualities. The dour Scottish copper is the most sympathetic person in the piece, either a pastiche of a careworn copper, or a policeman playing up to a pastiche knowing that this is what is expected of him. He also seems to be the only professional in the play worthy of the epithet. Naeem Hayat’s therapist Kamal is by contrast all detachment and questions until the script wants us to suspect him, at which he becomes sarky and judgemental about Rachel’s habits and clams up about his relationship with Megan. I’d have him struck off, save that one of the show’s only true human moments occurs when Megan tells him, and the audience, her backstory – kudos to Kirsty Oswald for managing to inject a genuine moment of tragic drama into proceedings.

GirlTrain14So what might at first seem a passable evening’s entertainment, rattling past at the speed of a 125, in retrospect unravels as quickly as Tom (Adam Jackson-Smith)’s volte-face and the subsequently rushed trackside denouement. At the end, we are left with a pat epilogue in which two of the principals offer the equivalent of the conclusion to a school essay, summarising the preceding two hours without convincing us that they feel anything new as a result. The Girl on the Train? I think I’ll take the bus.

Matthew Grierson
February 2019

Photography by Manuel Harlan

From → Drama, Reviews

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