FringeReview UK 2019
Stage-adaptors Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel return to the British original of Paula Hawkins’ 2015 thriller The Girl On The Train. Directed by Anthony Banks, James Cotterill’s set and costume design is striking for its visuals (Andrej Goulding’s projections) and sets: integrated into three contained ones. Jack Knowles lighting often brushes chill edges.
A bright strip of houses blurring at speed against blackness; a woman staring, then two halves of a grungy kitchen fill a segment of the stage. The woman vomits into a pizza box. She’s seen something to make her sick, now she’s remembering it.
There’s bin-bags of rubbish never taken out. She necks a bottle of wine and her ex-husband Tom knocks on the door, asking if after a row with his new wife Anna, Rachel – we learn her name – was near the underpass? A young woman, their former baby-sitter Megan has gone missing and Rachel has a severe cut over her eye, remembers blood on her hands. Tom wants the best for her, tries to help Rachel piece together anything she might have witnessed: since the police might be here, it’s important she gets it right.
Paula Hawkins’ 2015 thriller The Girl On The Train is back to the burbs, after its 2016 Emily Blunt-starring American iteration. And it’s better. Stage-adaptors Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel return to the British original which makes far more sense since there’s no commuter belt in the U. S. They inject more humour, more pizzazz and a satisfying storyline. The Theatre Royal Brighton is only the third leg of a tour taking this show to the Duke of York’s in July-August, after which it tours till the end of November. So catch it here first.
Directed by Anthony Banks, this is a class production. James Cotterill’s set and costume design is striking for its visuals (Andrej Goulding’s projections) and sets: integrated into three contained ones: that kitchen (with its ghastly green door), Megan’s fine living room, and Tom’s much plusher central aisle blond-wood-and-brushed-steel kitchen where he lives with Anna. Only it was the kitchen Rachel designed. Jack Knowles’ superb lighting often brushes chill edges (witness Milly Thomas’ Dust) which lends a clinical, unsettling feel. The sets pull away on occasion and we’re left with smoky scenes and frightening blackness. And there’s a stunning visual projection involving dreams.
It’s a tale of two kitchens. So why is it Rachel’s the one living with unpaid rent when Tom was unfaithful? In a world of isolation spelt social media, Rachel Watson’s clearly going nowhere, as Samantha Womack portrays her. Through a numbed nagging at herself she asks for a pic of Megan Tom has, and privately knows what to do. She’s never met Megan, but she’s been calling her Jess for months; and saw her on the underpass. Adam Jackson-Smith’s Tom hovers, protective of Anna, judgmentally non-judgmental. He reminds her of that time she swung at him with a golf-club (re-enacted simultaneously with an ensemble cast-member).
Kirsty Oswald’s Megan too drifts in and out, as an apparition then increasingly someone with a story to tell.
Megan’s the perfect girl kissing the perfect husband Rachel looked out for on her commute, even when she didn’t have to, passing Megan’s window. It’s the world social media promises, right there at a glance-by. A young woman Rachel saw kissing someone else the day before she vanished.
Visiting her analyst Kamal (Neam Hayat), she works out who. Posing as Megan’s friend Rachel visits husband Scott Hipwell who’s been cleaning the flat rather obviously. A wing-broken magpie he had to mercy-kill. He’s a vegetarian, so when Tom and Anna turn up with Moroccan chicken cous-cous and find Rachel and Scott on a second visit – things become compromising. Especially Rachel’s logged call to Megan’s mobile. But that was when she was with Oliver Farnworth’s Scott; who hovers between vulnerability, blind temper (using the same words he threatened Megan with in a voicemail) and attraction.
And who’ll believe Rachel? John Dougall’s D.I. Gaskell, always needling her with wasting police time, a delusional woman whose empty life’s filled with voyeuristic posing? And the drinking?
Pest-lballed Rachel has reasons to believe Lowenna Melrose’s perfect Anna knows something. There’s a development, Rachel is taken to it. Meanwhile, digging on her own, Rachel discovers more from analyst Kamal than he wants to admit.
Womack deftly conveys Rachel’s numbed state, then gradual jerky recovery as she eschews drink and remembers how she got off-course. A discovery to map others. Farnworth’s Scott projects edgy vulnerability – a veggie touched with violence, while Dougall is all avuncular scepticism, with Scots tales of his alky father. Jackson-Smith’s high liberal anxieties nicely morph into protective fire, and Melrose’s character blossoms late as Anna and Rachel finally talk. Hayat’s calm neatly explodes and there’s a vivid, vulnerable reveal that fits. Oswald’s fragile Megan becomes compelling when we know her story, and she trusts her listener.
There’s a slight lack of projection that resolves in the second act, and though this genre gives relatively little character depth, all actors vivify them with solid performances, Dougall relishing mordant one-liners. Womack’s given the most opportunity, though has to play out through a gauze of sobering-up isolation. The applause she receives is well-deserved. And the comedy? There’s nothing in the book or film to match moments when Gaskill addresses ‘Mrs Watson?’. Both Rachel and Anna answer him, and later we remember the moment. Only theatre can do that. Superb entertainment.