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on Fri, 22 Feb 2019
First a bestselling book, then a hit film, The Girl On The Train took the world by storm. Now, a touring stage adaptation of Paula Hawkins' 2015 novel is rolling into the Midlands, with EastEnders star Samantha Womack in the lead role of Rachel Watson.
“I think the stage version is a response to the obsessions of the public,” says Sam, who shot to stardom in 1991 when she represented the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest. “Thrillers, detective & police programmes and real-life crime drama are incredibly popular. I know that all the shows I like to watch on Netflix are things like Making Of A Murderer and the new Ted Bundy Tapes series. I think people are more interested in things that are, or could be, real life now. I think people are moving away from genres like fantasy and towards thrillers. The book was such a strong brand and such a success that people are excited to see the story presented how it was in the book. A lot of people were disappointed in the film, I think - some people loved it and others really didn’t. I mean, I loved it because I just love Emily Blunt and everything she does. But really, people just love a good thriller - they really do!”
The Girl On The Train combines thriller with voyeurism. Sam’s character Rachel watches two couples from the train and over time becomes obsessed with them. Sam thinks the immense popularity of the story is largely down to Rachel.
“I think it’s been so popular because Rachel is an anti-hero. She says the wrong things, she’s inappropriate, broken and damaged, which the audience seems to really respond to. I know for sure that the audiences I’ve experienced in the theatre respond really well to Rachel’s bad behaviour and the racy things she says. I think sometimes people enjoy characters who kind of rally against the appropriate way to behave.”
This is also the main reason that Sam was drawn to the role.
“While Rachel is broken - covering up all her damage with drinking - and has this devil-may-care attitude, she also has this really interesting arc to her character. She’s an incredibly bright, strong woman - she’s just kind of lost her way. I was attracted to the recklessness that makes her so interesting. I like the whole renegade vibe she has, where she just disorientates everyone with her madness. I’ve never really been in a situation where I’ve felt the way Rachel does and gone off the rails like she has, so I don’t have any direct inspiration for how to play her character, but sometimes these parts just come and get you. They appear right in front of you and you know exactly how you’d like to play them, so you just go and do it.”
Sam also thinks the book lends itself really well to theatre: “There’s actually a lot more licence with theatre to do the dream-like flashback and memory scenes from the book, so you can access Rachel’s brain in these scenarios a lot more than I think you can with film. I think theatrically the plot of the book works really well because you’re able to delve deep into what Rachel is thinking and feeling. Obviously with every new production and adaptation it will change. New actors will play the roles differently, and each adaptation adds things in and cuts things out, but the format is very much the same. I think what happens when audience members come to see it is that they almost forget the exact details of what they’ve already read because they’re so involved in the piece - it’s very captivating.”
Rachel turns amateur detective when Megan, one of the women she’s been watching from the train, goes missing. Sam explains why her character becomes so engaged with the disappearance.
“Rachel sees Megan going missing as the way to get herself back on track. For the first time in months she feels needed by other people and has a purpose. At this point, she’s very much been consumed by her alcoholism and her lies about going to work, so trying to figure out the mystery brings her back from the abyss.”
Playing Rachel is certainly a departure from the role for which Sam is best known - Ronnie Mitchell in EastEnders.
“I played Ronnie on and off for nine years, so I really got to know that character very well - to the point where, once I’d learnt the lines, I didn’t really need to rehearse because I knew exactly how to play her. I feel like, with theatre, you just get so much more time to rehearse and build the character before going straight in. I’m also a bit of a control freak! I like the way I have complete control over creating the character. What you see is what you get: the adaptation itself can’t be changed in writing, or edited afterwards, so you completely know what you’re signing up for. I really like that element of control, where what I put out at that very moment is exactly what the audience will see.
“I would say I prefer stage to screen, partly because I’m very impatient and like being able to work the story from start to finish in one night. Television and movies take such a long time to film. Sometimes you’re doing the same scene for a whole day! It’s hard to stay fresh in that kind of environment. With theatre, as soon as you set off playing your character on the night, it feels like you’re in a big race of emotions and acting - it’s very exciting!”
Although she’s thoroughly enjoying starring in The Girl On The Train, Sam admits that she’s looking forward to taking a break afterwards.
“The production is proving very popular, so I know there’s incredible demand for it to continue until after the already-scheduled dates and until the end of the year. I think I need to decide what it’s going to take out of me. I’ve only been playing Rachel for one month and she’s such a hard part to play, as she’s just so emotional. Sometimes it kind of gets under my skin a bit. But I’m definitely having a long break over the summer.
The Girl On The Train shows at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre from Monday 18 to Saturday 23 March.
The show then visits Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn from Mon 27 May to Sat 1 June.
Interview by Lauren Cole