In depressing times we need distraction, and sometimes it comes unexpectedly, and is all the better for being a bit of a surprise. Being a slightly lazy reviewer means justifying yourself by coming to a play fresh and objective (translation: done no homework) to see what it is all about. I knew nothing about the book or the film which propelled Paula Hawkins to success following the 2015 debut of her novel on which this show is based.
We meet Rachel Watson (Samantha Womack) in her bedsit kitchen, chugging the remnants of some wine down which promptly reappears. She is a hurt and apparently discarded wife to Tom (Adam Jackson-Smith), now remarried to Anna (Lowenna Melrose). Rachel fills her water bottle with neat vodka before facing the world.
Tom is never far away from her, claiming to still care as she appears to follow a downward spiral of alcohol and blackouts. Her despair gives her a fearlessness that is triggered when she learns of the disappearance of a near neighbour who she struggles to remember as she wades in to find out more about missing Megan Hipwell (Kirsty Oswald), her grieving husband Scott (Oliver Farnworth) and therapist Kamal Abdic (Maeem Hayat). Throughout all this there is a theme of scenes observed from a pausing train as all involved seem to be domiciled right next to the commuter tracks that Rachel should be taking to work every day. The set of principle characters is completed by the affable Detective Inspector Gaskill (John Dougall)
This is a thriller, so many are the twists and turns of character and plot as we learn more about these people and their complex inter-relationships. This work is distinguished from many stage thrillers (including everything by Agatha Christie) in the careful development of the characters who do not suddenly suffer a massive personality change to justify a creaking plot line. This is a play written in a time where coercive control and #MeToo are known themes that are starting to refocus us all on the roles of women and their endurance of male attempts at dominance. Our sympathies are drawn towards Rachel from the very start, even if the writer then tries to make her a tad difficult to empathise with as she seems bent on her own demise. But her character links together, sometimes clumsily, the protagonists in this solvable mystery that seems to be beyond the grasp of the police at first.
Like any competent stage thriller we are given false clues, a few red herring and some distracting moments of attempted passion, or at least lust, just to keep us on our toes. But the denouement is intelligent, believable, and contains details familiar to the lives of today’s generation of young adults. The cast who are all universally young and gorgeous enough to have walked straight off a Hollyoaks set are convincing in their disparate roles, giving us genuine people who we can all recognise and empathise with. Well at least until we find out who… no, you need tickets to know that.
This is a night at the theatre that will not disappoint, and should make you keen to rediscover the stage thriller genre as it gets a new level of relevance and credibility from this well honed production. Samantha Womack (née Janus) is memorable from her roles in Pie in the Sky, Game On and Eastenders amongst others but reminds us in this play just how good she is as a convincing character actor, creating a flawed but good hearted person we can all relate to. If you are getting jaded by the simplistic nature of many stage thrillers give this one a look – it gives the genre a new lease of life and is genuinely enjoyable from start to finish. The only downside to the evening was some wazzock letting their mobile phone ring throughout one of the more delicate scenes. The clear concensus in my chunk of the auditorium was that the phone owner should be the next victim.
© Julian Swainson 2019
The Girl On The Train, Monday 1-Saturday 6 July at 7.30pm, and Wed and Sat matinees at 2.30pm. Tickets £10-£33.50. Discounts for Friends, Over-60s, Under-18s and Groups. Audio-described performance on Sat July 6 at 2.30pm.
To book, log onto www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or call the box office on 01603 630000.