Adapted from Paula Hawkins' record-breaking bestseller of the same title, The Girl on the Train arrives in Oxford at an exciting time, just before its tour reaches the West End. The stage production neatly shows how well a page-turning novel can be translated to an edge-of-your-seat play. I went along on opening night, having read the book but not seen the film, accompanied by a friend who had not experienced the story before at all, and was eager to compare our experiences.
At the centre of the story is Rachel Watson, a lonely, alcoholic divorcee who commutes by train to London. She has created a fantasy around 'Jess' and 'Jason', a couple whose home she can see from the signal stop, and whose seemingly perfect life she is deeply envious of. Her illusion shatters when she learns that 'Jess', whose real name is Megan Hipwell, is missing, and Rachel becomes implicated in the disappearance. What follows is a modern take on the traditional whodunnit, with our narrator, made unreliable through the gaps in her memory created by drinking, taking on the role of an unlikely detective.
An inherent difficulty with presenting a thriller where most of the audience know the plot (as I surmised from snippets of conversation overheard before we entered the auditorium) is that usually the genre relies heavily on the twists and turns of the plot to create an element of surprise. It is a testament to this production, then, that there was still plenty of tension throughout.
This is offset with a generous helping of humour, which has a distinctly British flavour (justifying the decision to base the play on the book, rather than the Stateside-based film), brought to life by our talented cast - John Dougall's wry, Scottish D.I. Gaskill particularly shone in this regard. Samantha Womack's Rachel, though undergoing extreme experiences, is thoroughly relatable: the audience roots for her despite her potential guilt. Womack accurately captures the messiness of the posh-yet-dysfunctional 'Waitrose drinker', complete with slurring loss of control.
Rachel's drinking is never glamorized, but instead shown in a sordid yet sympathetic light, communicated well through an apartment littered with plastic bags and empty bottles. These scenes exemplify James Cotterill's downright superb set design. The train that was rendered with panels and lights as we took our seats before the start of the show was so convincing that someone sitting behind me warned the steward that they were motion sick! Overall, the versatile set was effectively managed, so that at least six settings were suggested, heightening the sense of the c. 90-minute run time being tightly packed with enjoyable details. Other creative choices from the accomplished director Anthony Banks and adapter Rachel Wagstaff which I found worked particularly well included using therapy sessions as a vehicle for allowing Rachel to express her internal thoughts (since so much of the book comes from her warped point of view and this might have been lost had the play been dialogue-heavy), and a tableau towards the end of the second half where our three female protagonists, whose fates are intertwined but who barely interact, following each other mechanically across the stage.
At times, I found that the dramatic music was a bit overdone. While there were moments when the combination of noise and projections served to enhance the sense of confusion that Rachel experienced, the thumping beats over scene changes could have had more impact if they had been quieter, and indeed had let the script and acting speak more for themselves. However, this defect was minor in the face of what was, on the whole, an absorbing and often powerful show.