THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN
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)