rachel and tom

Samantha Womack as Rachel and Adam Jackson-Smith as Tom in Rachel's dingy, squalid flat.

Pictures: Manual Harlan

The Girl on the Train

Wolverhampton Grand


What a cracker of a psychological thriller, building moment by flaky moment, through mind games and madness, until it all comes crashing down in a twisted, dramatic climax.

I have never read Paula Hawkins’ best-selling and critically acclaimed 2015 novel, nor have I seen the much less successful film, which transported the setting a year later from London to New York, so have no idea whether it is a good stage adaptation – all I can say is it is a superb thriller.

In part that is down to a taut script, from Rachel Wagstaff and Duncal Abel, and exceptional stagecraft. As a rule of thumb if set or lighting are mentioned in the first few paragraphs of a review, it means it is a struggle to say anything positive about the rest.

Here they deserve equal billing with the excellent cast in a production where every element is working in harmony.

The book is so well read that the plot must be well known to many of the audience, and those in the know say it is a faithful adaptation, but there will be many like myself, who know the title and little else, and they are in for a treat.


John Dougall as DI Gaskill with Matt Concannon in the background, who, along with Phillip Flynn play every other part

Samantha Womack plays alcoholic divorcee Rachel Watson, whose life is a catalogue of anger, frustration and episodes of drunken oblivion, spiced up by arguments with her ex-husband’s new wife, Anna..

She was round at ex-husband Tom's home, her former home as well, one Saturday evening, routinely threatening Anna when one of Tom's neighbours, Megan, goes missing. For reasons we will never know the drunken Rachel becomes driven to find out what happened to her friend Megan - a friend she had never even spoken to, let alone met.

To all intents and purposes Rachel would be seen as unhinged by even the most sympathetic observer as she wheedles her way into the investigation, both annoying and exasperating Det Insp Gaskill, in charge of the inquiry, but still giving him clues he must follow, clues which bit by bit paint a telling picture.

John Dougall brings the cynical, world weary policeman to life, thorough, methodical, with his own past, and some throwaway lines, as he becomes both fascinated and frustrated by the interference of Rachel.

Adam Jackson-Smith is a sympathetic Tom, understanding, and despite the divorce, still appearing to care and look after his ex-wife, excusing violent moments in her past. Lowenna Melrose, on the other hand, gives us an Anna who has no sympathy for Rachel, with open hostility nearer the mark.

Megan’s husband Scott, played by Oliver Farnworth, is concerned at the loss of his wife, but with Rachel’s probing, we discover his life was Megan was far from perfect, so much so that their final parting had violent undertones.

Then there is the therapist, Kamal Abdic, quietly spoken, most of the time, by Naeem Hayat, who knows much of Megan’s past life, secrets dragged from him which will change the shape of the plot.

Rachell and Scott

Oliver Farnworth as Scott with Rachel

Then there is Megan, played by Kirsty Oswald. She is never there – she vanished remember - but appears time after time in flashbacks, with a spine tingling soliloquy as she describes her teen years to Kamal in graphic, matter of fact detail.

Holding it all together is a spellbinding performance from Womack as both a drunk and a driven woman, almost becoming Megan’s avenging angel. Her alcoholic traits, such as disguising white wine in a water bottle in the hope no one will notice, start to diminish, and she is even starting to embrace sobriety as she pursues the truth with dogged, insistence and persistence, badgering and browbeating anyone who might know anything, all the while making herself more and more a prime suspect in the disappearance.

Her relationship with Megan is nominal, to say the least, She, used to see her occasionally on her terrace from the train window on her daily commute – a journey which also took her past her old home where Tom and Anna now live. Some might think it spying, but let us be kind and say it was just what she, or anyone, saw through the train window.

There are twists and turns a plenty as we head to the climax, a denouement which you had had enough hints to suspect as the second act went on, but you were never sure, and it was still more ruthless than you expected – the product of a disturbed mind – but who’s mind?

Ah. That would be telling.

As for the setting, James Cotterill, who also designed the costumes, has produced a masterclass in flexible design.

Rachel’s dingy flat slides in and out from the wings with a backdrop of what appears to be a bleak, 60’s urban concrete multi story car park behind – certainly not in the classier part of town.

Scott and Megan’s home, with settee and terrace, slides out from the rear, spin it around and it is Tom and Anna’s kitchen and through lounge.


The focus of the plot - the missing Megan, played by Kirsty Oswald

Two tubular chairs fall and rise from the flies for Kamal’s consulting room, at either side of the stage to distance himself from questioning, while sliding panels at the rear allow scenes to drift by in memory.

Add to that are video projections. Days, Tuesday . .. Wednesday . . . appear from nowhere and fade again to show passage of time, Megan’s painting comes to swirling life in Rachel’s drink addled brain while a long, stage wide strip, like the windows on a fast moving train shows us Rachel looking out through a real window in the screen or we see characters flashing by in projections designed by Andrzej Goulding.

Jack Knowles’ lighting is a testament to the importance of the craft in setting tone and mood. The interior sets are well lit, while the periphery is in gloom, with lighting stark black and white, at times a little unreal and unnerving. Individuals, scenes, moments are picked out, square masks are used to add interest, a path unfolding across the stage at one point. Flashbacks have a slightly unreal light and complete darkness is used as an effect as much as a cover for scene changes with Ben and Max Ringham’s composition and sound design adding another element.

There is nothing you can put your finger on, but the technicals create a sense of unease, not fear, nothing scary, just a feeling all is not as it seems, while the cast continue in the same vein. The performances are convincing but as the story unfolds, like peeling away the layers of an onion, you always have the feeling there is something you are missing, something you have missed, something that means you can never settle, Rachel is asking the questions you also want answered.

Whether you have read the book or seen the film matters not a jot, this is a cracking thriller with director Anthony Banks opening it with tension and building it steadily and inexorably to a climax raising a few hairs on necks along the way. It grabs you from the start and grips you to the end. To 23-03-19

Roger Clarke


The Girl on the Train will also appear at Coventry Belgrade 13-18 May, The Alexandra Theatre 26-31 August.

Index page Grand Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre