When Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Able’s stage adaptation of Paula Hawkin’s wildly successful The Girl on the Train premiered, on tour and in the West End, it failed to wow the critics. ‘We learned a great deal’ the writers comment in the programme for a refreshed version of the production which has opened at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, under the direction of Joseph Hodges.
The titular girl is Rachel Watson, an alcoholic that’s lost her job and her husband. The couple were unable to have a child and Tom (Tom Gordon) had an affair with Anna (Tori Hargreaves), and he’s now settled with the new wife and their baby girl. Rachel still takes the train into London every day, as it stops briefly at a signal, giving her the perfect view of the house she used to share with Tom.
But, she can also see the neighbours two doors down, in her head she imagines the perfect life that Megan (Chrystine Symone) and Scott (Scott Hume) must lead, there’s enough hints to suggest that Rachel feels a real sense of jealousy towards them. When Megan goes missing, Rachel becomes amateur detective, partly driven by her obsession with the couple, and partly because her drinking leaves holes in her memory, and somehow, she thinks she knows more than she can remember.
The updated script certainly makes a difference, this potboiler now feels more appropriately paced, and Rachels alcoholism is dialled down in the first act. It makes her second act sobriety less impactful, but the overall effect is a more balanced production.
It remains somewhat formulaic, at many points The Girl on the Train feels like a two-part episode of Murder: She Wrote; Rachel ingratiates herself to the investigation despite having no apparent link to anyone involved, interrogates suspects with even less subtlety than Jessica Fletcher, and even forms a pseudo-partnership with the investigating officer (Cavin Cornwall).
Yet there’s something comforting about the familiarity of the construct, and Joseph Hodges direction keeps it all feeling slick, even in the few moments when the script starts to feel cumbersome. Upstairs at the Gatehouse is one of London’s relatively larger pub theatre’s, but the importance of the train to the story was always going to pose a problem. It’s overcome extremely well with Seb Blaber’s lighting design and Sam Glossop’s sound design. Richard Cooper’s overall design, featuring an abundance of mirrored surfaces feels suitably Scandi-chic for this particular thriller.
Katie Ray gives a truly outstanding performance as Rachel Watson, bringing out every available nuance in the character. The pain and hurt the character feels comes through in spades, and the character becomes more likable, and relatable, than in the previous version.
The rest of the cast struggle to match Ray’s performance prowess, although Tom Gordon develops the role of Tom Watson well as the play progresses, and Chrystine Symone effectively uses her second act scenes to give greater prominence to Megan’s backstory.
Any adaptation of a popular book or film (or in this case both) will struggle to live up to audience expectations. But it’s clear the writers have made appropriate changes following the last run, in this The Girl on the Train everything is pacier, and while we predominantly get the story from the perspective of the unreliable narrator, Rachel, there is now enough from the other characters to keep the audience engaged.
The Girl on the Train is at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 3rd July 2022.