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)
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 12th July 2022
Bruce Norris’s award-winning piece is a play of two halves. Set in the same house, acts one and two are fifty years apart, with two sets of characters. We begin in 1959, and Russ and Bev are packing up to move out. There is a kind of cosy sit-com banter between them, but soon a thread of darkness is revealed. Their lives have been blighted by tragedy: their son, home from the Korean war, and unable to live with the atrocities he committed, has killed himself. Concerned parties gather: the local clergyman, the local busybody… they’ve got wind that the buyers are ‘coloured’… Whoops, there go the property values.
What starts as amusing becomes savagely funny. Director Stewart Snape gets the rises and falls, the crescendos and clashes pitch perfect, enabling his excellent cast to shine. The mighty Colin Simmonds makes the naturalism seem effortless as mild-mannered Russ, who is provoked to explosive invective, in a well-judged portrayal. He is strongly supported by Liz Plumpton’s excitable Bev, while James David Knapp is exquisitely monstrous as the racist busybody trying to put a stop to the sale, and Paul Forrest is delightfully irritating as the dog-collared Jim. Conducting herself with supreme dignity is Shemeica Rawlins as the housemaid, Francine, with Papa Anoh Yentumi making a strong impression as her husband Albert.
Fifty years later (what a long interval that was!) and the tables have turned. A young white couple wish to demolish the house, now dilapidated and covered in graffiti, in a bid to gentrify the area, despite objections voiced by people who have grown up there during the intervening decades. There are parallels to be made with white people taking over the land and property of others, I suppose, but the discourse in this second half is not as clear cut as the first. The characters are preoccupied with language, particularly when someone (James David Knapp again, as a different, equally monstrous character!) cracks an inappropriate joke. Thus, the topic shifts more to what is considered offensive and who is ‘allowed’ to be offended, before a final coda takes us back to the 50s, and the doomed son writing his suicide note, a reminder that people do much worse things to each other than make jokes, but also that such jokes are also a form of violence and oppression.
It’s an electrifying evening of theatre. The play provokes more than it answers, which is how it should be, in my view, and there is a lot of fun to be had seeing the cast play roles diametrically opposed to their first-act personas. Grace Cheadle’s ‘woke’ Lindsey couldn’t be further from the insipid Betsy from act one! There are echoes in the script, turns of phrase, lines of argument, that reoccur, suggesting that people haven’t, society hasn’t, changed. Which is a depressing thought, but it’s delivered in a hugely entertaining way by a company of actors of the highest quality.