- United Kingdom Theatre Critic
Paula Hawkins’ novel The Girl on the Train regularly sits atop worldwide bestseller lists, and since its publication in 2015, has embarked on an even greater journey to well and truly cement itself in popular culture as an unforgettable thriller. This journey began with its adaptation to film in 2016, which brought it to even wider audiences; the next logical step in this journey was a theatre adaptation. Over three years since the novel’s publication, the West Yorkshire Playhouse has taken on the task, with a new adaptation by Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel, prior to its imminent closure for major refurbishment.
In case you’re not already familiar with the novel, The Girl on the Train follows the story of Rachel Watson (Jill Halfpenny), a woman who’s just lost her job and been divorced from her husband Tom (Adam Best). Pretending to go to work every day, a particular highlight of Rachel’s day is her train commute, where the thrill of standing still and watching the world hurtle by provides her with brief solace. The story begins when, after watching a young woman named Megan (Florence Hall) from her seat on the train, Rachel wakes up in her flat with a wound on her head and a memory full of holes, and when D.I. Gaskill (Colin Tierney) turns up out of the blue enquiring about Megan’s disappearance, Rachel finds herself caught up in a turbulent investigation.
Wagstaff and Abel certainly had a challenge on their hands here - condensing Hawkins’ novel, famed for its intense analysis of its characters throughout and the various twists and turns that made its narrative so memorable, would prove undoubtedly tricky. Yet, the two writers have crafted a stage play that firmly stands on its own two feet and behaves like a separate piece of work in its own right, independent of its source work. As obvious a goal as that may seem in adaptation, it’s incredibly surprising to see how many theatrical adaptations seem to live in the shadow of their source work, and end up acting as mere supplements to the original. This is certainly not the case in this new adaptation of The Girl on the Train; a powerful shift in tonality and the defining characteristics of live performance have given this work a complete life of its own.
Director Joe Murphy has crafted a performance environment that behaves something like a pressure cooker, which ultimately helps to bolster this adaptation’s independence. In the economical confines of Lily Arnold’s set design, the front of which mimics the window frame of a train and from which one has a gloriously cinematic view of the land speeding by, the performers find themselves in an environment where their every move and thought is amplified. The action is clear cut, transitions are slick and the sense of the narrative hurtling to a powerful conclusion is certainly palpable. Everything here feels tightly bound together and polished, without a feeling of lifeless semiotics simply imitating the source work - the directorial command serves this new adaptation very well indeed.
The performances here are certainly an extension of this directorial command; from the whole cast, we see portrayals that are finely crafted and sharpened, poised to serve the narrative and the text to the greatest effect. The company works incredibly well as an ensemble, and they collectively help to convey an infectious, brooding sense of energy that pushes the action into overdrive. When this energy is amplified by the scenography, the piece becomes nothing short of unforgettable.
With striking performances and a sense of drive and potency I haven’t seen in an adaptation of this kind for a while, this production is a spellbinding, high energy ride through one of the world’s most memorable narratives. It’s absolutely unmissable.
The Girl on the Train is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 9th June. For more information and tickets, visit: https://www.wyp.org.uk/events/the-girl-on-the-train/