Jonathan Hall reviews The Girl On The Train at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
The Girl On The Train
West Yorkshire Playhouse
Adapting a popular novel for the stage is a tough call at the best of times- adapting one that has only just gone from off the shelves and has recently a popular film and therefore lodged firmly in the public conscience is a doubly, triply fraught task- a task that according to a swathe of negative reviews the West Yorkshire Playhouse has roundly failed in. Therefore it came as something of a surprise to me when I came out of the show (a performance that had earned itself a cheering audience ovation) finding myself having been both absorbed and entertained by what I had just seen.
However the negatives are there…
The complex heart of Paula Hawkin’s intriguing novel is Rachel, the titular girl on the train, a dark enigma of a character. An alcoholic in flat denial of her problems, seemingly stalking her ex-husband and his new partner, her actions constantly have the reader questioning her reliability both as a narrator and a human being. Additionally her self-centred treatment of those around her makes her someone who is in fact pretty hard to like. Vital to the story is the fact that after a woman vanishes- a woman Rachel just happens to be watching from a train window on a daily basis- there’s a whopping hangover of a black hole in her memory as well as a few worrying cuts and bruises. Is Rachel a hapless victim of events- or is their something more sinister about her actions?
Unfortunately however this key enigma is not served at all well by certain elements of the production. Rachel is played with a compelling forthright integrity by Jill Halfpenny- and for me that was the trouble. The character came across as too strong, too reliable- and very likeable into the bargain. Not for one minute did I doubt her version of events or see her as anything other than a victim and a heroine.
The problem was further compounded by the script by Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Able, which told more than it showed. For example Rachel’s alcoholism which was such a queasy uncomfortable dynamic in the novel was something only really referred to- we never actually saw the toe curling lapses of behaviour brought on her by drinking. The catalogue of dark and disturbing events were mainly reported to us by characters in conversation- often we were hearing about events second or even third hand – which had a deadening effect on the action. Where characters did meet, when events did occur on stage the show flared into dark funny life- such as the scene in a neighbour’s house with a sort of drinks party from hell.
The strong set design by Lily Arnold also worked against the shifting heart of of the story. On the one hand projections of a blurred urban landscape scene from a train created strong opening images, the powerful neon white framing of the stage gave the impression of life glimpsed through a train window. However what we saw beyond the outline of the window for me counteracted the whole effect; a rigid grey apartment, starkly and uncompromisingly outlined by white. The image was too strong- so that whatever scene we saw- and there was a pleasing fluidity of time and place with flashbacks and jumps in location- was played against that same strongly defined apartment backdrop.
The question is- do these issues (to use a much overused phrase) derail the evening. And I’d say no.
The story is a strong and cleverly crafted tale of betrayal and coercive control with an intriguing mystery at the heart, a mystery that is maintained right until the end. The direction by Joe Murphy and the strong and committed performances gave pace and energy to the story; particularly memorable were Adam Best as the Rachel’s ex partner switching between frayed concern and something a bit darker and Florence Hall as a woman stalked beyond endurance by her husband’s ex.
And I was not alone in my enjoyment- as mentioned, at the end the show was cheered by a packed audience; I gathered overhearing conversations, that many of them not being natural theatregoers had come to the Playhouse on the strength of seeing a book they loved presented on stage. Surely this has to be a good thing and the adaptation of a popular novel a valid project for the theatre to try again in the future?
Until 9 June 2018