The Girl on the Train review at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds – ‘lacking in tension’
Paula Hawkins’ novel is a publishing phenomenon. It sold millions of copies, topped bestseller lists and became the basis for a fairly insipid film starring Emily Blunt. Now it has been adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel, but if you were coming to the production with little knowledge of the source material, you’d struggle to understand its popularity.
Jill Halfpenny plays Rachel, a woman whose life has been in free fall since her marriage to Tom ended after she was unable to conceive. Her excessive consumption of alcohol since then has made Emmental of her memory to the extent that she can’t be certain whether or not she has witnessed a crime. She wakes up one morning with a gash on her head and senses that she has seen something she shouldn’t have, but the rest is lost in a boozy fog.
The stage adaptation streamlines the novel considerably, jettisoning the other narrative voices to concentrate on Rachel. It opens with her former neighbour Megan Hipwell (Florence Hall) already missing, and the police investigation underway, with DI Gaskill (Colin Tierney) sniffing around and asking questions.
Joe Murphy’s production generates little in the way of tension around the mystery of what happened to Megan or, more crucially, Rachel’s growing self-doubt surrounding her own possible involvement.
What adapters Wagstaff and Abel do well is to foreground how all the women – Rachel, Megan and Tom’s new, younger, fertile wife Anna – are being gaslighted and misused by their partners, how corrosive such behaviour can be and how it can undermine your sense of self. But this comes too late. For most of the first half, the play feels like a particularly pedestrian episode of Law and Order.
Rachel’s Chardonnay-fuelled commute, in which she makes up stories about the people she glimpses through the train’s window as she passes the house she used to share with her ex, is central to the novel’s plot and the reason for its title, but, weirdly, it barely features here. The striking and stylish design aims to address this to some extent. Designer Lily Arnold has created a box suggestive of a train window that contains, at its centre, a swirling painting that stands in for the void of Rachel’s memory. But none of this compensates for the production’s lack of pulse.
Halfpenny brings warmth and strength to the character of Rachel. She’s more determined and collected, less chaotic and destructive – she doesn’t stash wine in cupboards, or vomit in hallways. But as a result, she never convinces as this most unreliable of witnesses.
At least she feels like a plausible person in comparison to Megan and Anna. They’re flimsy as tissue paper, and the men – Tom, Megan’s volatile partner Scott, and Kamal, the sleazy therapist – aren’t much better developed. Major revelations are robbed of their emotional wallop and, given that the production is supposed to be a thriller, it delivers very few thrills.