Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 25th February 2023
Paula Hawkins’s best-selling novel is so effective because of its first person narrative, from the girl on the train herself. She’s an unreliable narrator, so we’re never sure if what she says happened happened or whether it’s her booze-tinted imagination. The stage adaptation by Duncan Abel & Rachel Wagstaff has to take a different approach as the Girl is revealed to be a fantasist, her story contradicting itself… A tough call for any actor taking on the role and here, Grace Cheadle rises to the challenge and nails it. Her Rachel Watson is off-kilter, brittle and bitter, but also vulnerable and appealing. We are with her all the way, happy to go along for the ride.
Briefly, the plot has Rachel commuting to work by train. Her emotional life is a bit of a train wreck and so she self-medicates with day-drinking. Through the windows she sees people’s houses and fantasises about who they are and what they’re called. One day, one of her regular characters is not there… A woman has gone missing and the police are involved. Can Rachel’s unreliable evidence be of use or will she implicate herself? To add to the mix, a couple of doors down from the missing woman’s home live Rachel’s ex-husband and his new wife and baby…and so a series of explosive scenes are set in train.
The multi-purpose set allows the action to zip along like an express train – we never have to wait for furniture to be shifted – and scenes are linked with video clips, extending the action beyond the set pieces: we see characters being taken in for questioning, for example, and there are clips of Rachel boozing on the train, to the distaste of other passengers.
The excellent central performance from Cheadle is supported by a strong ensemble. Particularly effective is David Baldwin’s Detective Inspector Gaskill; Baldwin has a casual, natural style but still means business. It’s a superb contrast with Cheadle’s more manic moments and self-doubt. Tom Lowde, as Rachel’s ex, and Victoria Youster as new wife Anna are perfectly smug and annoying (from Rachel’s pov) while Oliver Jones captures the volatility of Scott, the missing woman’s husband. Papa Yentumi’s therapist balances professional intonations with personal impulses, and Charlotte Thompson crops up repeatedly in flashbacks as the missing Megan, imbued with an almost saintly air (from Rachel’s pov) despite her bad behaviour. Completing the cast is Susan Keats’s police officer, a small but crucial part well conveyed.
Director Rod Natkiel keeps the action fluid and clear. The fast pace winds up the tension and the use of video flashbacks to display Rachel’s fractured memories works well. It’s just when we reach the climactic, violent denouement that things go off the rails and get a bit muddy and unfocussed. Perhaps the video screens could be used to augment the moment, seeing how they’ve been so integral to the rest of the production…
All in all, the production delivers the mystery, the tension, and the surprises of the story, and there’s plenty of humour to leaven the unpleasantness. An involving thriller that doesn’t outstay its welcome. All aboard!
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Grace Cheadle and David Baldwin (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 17th November, 2022
Young couple Liz and JP are engaged to be married. To raise funds for their nuptials, they decide to create something exciting for their YouTube channel, something that will go viral and bring in the big bucks. Unlike most ‘influencers’ I’ve come across, this pair are an appealing couple of characters and we’re happy to go along with them when they opt for spending the night at an abandoned children’s home…
So begins a superb night of theatre, with the intimate black-box space of the Blue Orange pulling out all the stops to generate suspense and tension, using practical effects to shock and surprise and to get us jumping out of our seats. The action is enhanced by video footage, for scenic reasons and to develop the plot, as JP stumbles across VT of a creepy doctor conducting interviews with his juvenile charges. Alex Johnson’s set grounds us in reality, while his lighting design highlights the weird happenings. Dan Clarkson’s sound design punches up the scarier moments. Sights and sounds come at us from all quarters, keeping us on edge throughout.
Saul Bache makes JP an amiable extrovert, providing a rich vein of humour between the scares. Stephanie Simpson’s Liv is more level-headed (until things start to unravel, that is!) and the two spark off each other nicely. Thom Stafford (no relation) is wonderfully menacing as twisted Doctor Harding, whether he’s on screen or making a more personal appearance.
The script by James Williams and Alexandra Whiteley (who both also direct) is bang up-to-date, proving that ghost stories don’t have to be Victorian, using present-day vernacular and technology to create a thrill-ride of a play that puts the audience in the thick of the action. Ashley Walsh’s original compositions add to the horror movie atmosphere, and there’s a haunting version of You Are My Sunshine in a minor key that is wonderfully unsettling. Horror fans will recognise tropes from cinema, but they’re just as (if not more) effective done live before our very eyes.
The story covers a lot of ground: mystery, supernatural occurrences, psychological terror, buried memories coming to the surface… and does so effectively in a comparatively short running time. It’s an antidote to all the premature Christmas cheer out there, a perfect chiller for a wintry evening.
The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 25th April 2022
First Atlantis, then Dallas, and now Birmingham! Patrick “Bobby Ewing” Duffy stars in this (to me) obscure comedy-thriller from 1965, which has been dug up by Bill Kenwright Productions. Duffy plays Daniel Corban, a honeymooner whose wife has been missing for three days from the remote chalet they have borrowed from Daniel’s boss. The local police are on the case but then a woman turns up. Is she really the missing Mrs or, as Daniel insists, is she an imposter out to get him and, consequently, his life insurance?
On the surface, it’s standard genre fare, but its elevated by a dry and witty script by Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert. With more twists and turns than a corkscrew, the plot keeps you guessing in this hugely enjoyable, somewhat cosy murder-mystery.
Duffy is in fine form as the neurotic Corban, tightly wound and sarcastic, and of course, it’s a treat to see him live, for reals, and not just in Pam Ewing’s dream. No shower scene tonight, alas, but Duffy has a laidback confidence, which makes Corban’s increasingly desperate state all the more of a contrast.
As the is-she-or-isn’t-she wife Elizabeth, the alluring Linda Purl is great fun, and she is aided and abetted by Ben Nealon’s not-to-be-trusted clergyman. Gray O’Brien is excellent as the wise-cracking, jaded police inspector, and there is strong character support from the wonderfully named Hugh Futcher as Sidney from the sandwich shop. Paul Lavers makes his mark as Corban’s brash boss, with Chloe Zeitounian makes a fleeting impression in her brief appearance as the bit-on-the-side, ‘Mrs Parker’.
The mystery is intriguing enough to keep us hooked, while the rich vein of humour keeps us amused as the story unfolds and surprises. Bob Tomson’s direction paces the action well to create such an entertaining evening, we’re willing to overlook the occasional stretches of credibility. A well-made production, nicely played by all concerned. (There was an issue of patchy microphone coverage at the performance I saw. I prescribe a thorough soundcheck before the curtain goes up again.)
All in all, it’s good fun. Catch it while you can.
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 8th March 2022
Dan Brown’s best-selling thriller, having already been a film starring Tom Hanks, now comes to the stage in this slick and stylised adaptation, with Nigel Harmon in the leading role as nerdy action hero and symbologist, Robert Langdon, who finds himself accused of murder when a body is found in the Louvre with the deceased’s handwriting naming Langdon, among a load of gobbledy-gook. Langdon is an expert in gobbledy-gook and he teams up with the putatively French cryptologist, Sophie Neveu (Hannah Rose Caton). With no further ado, we’re off on a treasure hunt, with puzzles to solve and codes to crack.
Luke Sheppard’s direction keeps the cast of ten on stage most of the time, involving them in the action, vocally and often physically, as well as making their individual appearances as characters Langdon and Neveu encounter along the way. David Woodhead’s elegant set is dominated by Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man — you know the fellow, like Jim Morrison doing star jumps. Aided by Llyr Parri’s video and sound designs, the unfolding mystery is laid out before us. There’s a lot to listen to, a lot to keep up with.
Nigel Harmon makes for a personable Robert Langdon: the geekish enthusiasm, the mansplaining, the claustrophobia, are all here, and he is ably supported by Hannah Rose Caton’s Sophie, who is also full to the brim with exposition. Almost stealing the show is Red Dwarf’s Danny John-Jules as the eccentric Sir Leigh Teabing, clearly enjoying himself.
Alpha Kargbo’s Detective Fache charges around, shouting a lot, while Andrew Lewis is sympathetic as the murdered man, Sauniere (in flashbacks!). Joshua Lacey is a decidedly menacing presence as the self-flagellating assassin Silas.
The plot cracks along at speed. Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel’s script could do with a couple of breathing spaces so we can digest each revelation, but thinking time is sacrificed in favour of pace. Otherwise, it’s a faithful adaptation that translates well into action, performed by a strong ensemble who work like a well-oiled machine.