July 1st saw the opening performance of Girl on the Train at Norwich Theatre Royal. Based on Paula Hawkins’ best-selling novel and Rachel Wagstaff’s film, Anthony Banks’ stage adaptation took on the challenges with conveying themes of isolation, memory and inertia with aptly paired-back staging, inventive costume design and thrilling employment of lighting effects.
Rachel Watson (Samantha Womack) is a troubled, alcoholic divorcee, still infatuated with her ex-husband Tom (Adam Jackson-Smith), who has left her for the prim and pristine Anna (Lowenna Melrose). Struggling with her own sense of purpose, Rachel sees a beautiful couple, Megan (Kirsty Oswald) and Scott (Oliver Farnworth), from her train window. They hold each other like their lives depend on it. Rachel gives them nicknames and backstories, and soon watching them becomes her sole purpose, until one day Megan goes missing and Rachel becomes a suspect in the case.
The entanglement of reality with Rachel’s sporadic, unreliable memories and internal turmoil is demonstrated by striking aspects of costume and set design, lighting and sound in the play’s second half. Set and costume designer, James Cotterill, executed this thematic representation in Megan’s dress. Throughout the plot’s twists and turns, the audience is somewhat led to believe that Megan has drowned herself in the sea at Holkham, a place over which she obsesses, as her red dress appears soaked at the bottom. Throughout the play, more and more of her dress appears soaked, with black liquid seemingly rising up the fabric as the story of her murder continues to unwind. In the final scene, Megan’s death is revealed, and her dress has become entirely black. The viewer calls into question: does this suggest closure for Rachel – a possibility that with the case’s resolution comes a sense of finality – or perhaps illustrates that the glamour and appeal of Megan’s idyllic life is a mere product of Rachel’s now-dismantled internal construction?
Cotterill’s set design, accompanied by Jack Knowles’ thrilling use of lighting and Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design, possesses far more thematic potency than any actor’s delivery of lines. With the seamless transition of place – from Rachel’s grimy flat, to Tom and Anna’s impeccably-kept house, to the pivotal train tracks – Rachel’s internal conflict becomes muddled with reality, and the audience enthralled in her confusion and frustration.
While the genre is somewhat lost to the jarring inclusion of misplaced jokes and overly dramatic, repetitive dialogue, the saving grace of Banks’ adaptation is the design. Cotterill, Knowles and Ringham convey the play’s sense of helplessness and confusion with grit and originality.