Starring Samantha Womack and adapted from Paula Hawkins' novel, this gripping new play will keep you guessing until the final moment.

Rachel Watson longs for a different life. Her only escape is the perfect couple she watches through the train window every day, happy and in love. Or so it appears.

When Rachel learns that the woman she's been secretly watching has suddenly disappeared, she finds herself as a witness and even a suspect in a thrilling mystery in which she will face bigger revelations than she could ever have anticipated.

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 


on Fri, 22 Feb 2019

It always amazes me what makes one book a bestseller, whilst another gets released almost unnoticed. Paula Hawkins' 2015 novel, The Girl on the Train, is an example of the former with critical acclaim for both the book and the 2016 film that followed.

The Girl on the Train has now been adapted for stage and is currently playing at The Alexandra in Birmingham. With twists and turns aplenty, Hawkins successfully intertwines the lives of a small group of people, centring predominantly on Rachel. She has been on a downward spiral of alcoholism since splitting with her husband, who now has a new wife and baby. She rides the train into London every day and watches a couple who seemingly have the life she longs for. However, when the woman goes missing, Rachel is drawn into the investigation.

Unsure as to how the story would translate to the stage, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it came across. It is a fairly low budget production with three interchangeable living spaces – designed by James Cotterill - and the train is represented by a series of windows that are projected onto to echo movement. Jack Knowles’ lighting also works hand in the hand with both design and direction with many great situational cues.

The show hits the ground running by means of explaining the backstory but paints an excellent picture so you never feel like you are playing catch up. Anthony Banks’ direction lends itself perfectly to the action with the transitions between scenes (involving the superb Samantha Womack as Rachel) being especially well thought out. My only slight criticism is that the dramatic stakes are not higher at the end of the show.

Womack is on stage for the entire show and is perfectly cast as the lead character. Initially I felt that she was perhaps channelling Emily Blunt a little too much from the film but she soon found her own way. You genuinely empathise with her character from the outset and her performance is consistent from start to finish.

The small supporting cast all contribute greatly to the overall product. Kirsty Oswald plays the missing Megan Hipwell brilliantly and haunted by her past. One particular exchange between her and therapist Dr Abdic (Naeem Hayat) is extremely powerful. Oliver Farnworth as Megan’s husband, Scott, could have been a little more upset over his missing wife but his scenes alongside Womack are very engaging.

Rachel’s ex-husband Tom, performed by Adam Jackson-Smith, could have had more of a character arc and Phillipa Flynn (as Tom’s new wife Anna) could have been more irritated and somewhat frightened of Rachel but both are easy to watch.

A brilliantly adapted production, which with a few characterisation tweaks, would be perfect.

The Girl on the Train plays at The Alexandra until 31 August and continues to tour the UK until November 2019.

**** Four stars

Jenny Ell


4 Stars on Tue, 27 Aug 2019

Adapting Paula Hawkins’ bestseller (20 million copies and counting) for the stage was always likely to make commercial sense, even if the task of actually doing so is rather less straightforward. The challenges are both mental and physical – much of the psychological thriller is based on what is going on in the head of the lead character, and there’s the small matter of the train journeys that prompt her involvement in the case of a missing person.

Fans of the book (we’ll ignore the film version) might beg to differ, but Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel’s adaptation ticks most of the boxes, creating a tight, pacey thriller that owes as much to Anthony Banks’ clever staging as the quality of the acting talent on display. The former ranges from effective projections for the train sequences to claustrophobic sliding box scenery that almost mimics train carriages, while the latter sees soap opera royalty Samantha Womack (East Enders’ Ronnie Mitchell) and Oliver Farnworth (Corrie’s Andy Carver) leading a fine ensemble cast.

Womack plays Rachel Watson, a woman who relies on alcohol and her vision of happiness – the perfect couple she sees from the train every day – to escape the drudgery of her own broken life. When she discovers the woman she’s been watching has gone missing, she quickly becomes drawn into the mystery, initially as witness but ultimately as suspect, not least because of her unreliable memory and alcohol-fuelled blackouts.

The soap star is excellent in a demanding role that keeps her on stage throughout, ably supported by Farnworth as husband (and thus both victim and chief suspect) of missing Megan, Kirsty Oswald as his enigmatic wife, and Adam Jackson-Smith and Lowenna Melrose as Tom and Anna Watson, Rachel’s ex-husband and his new partner.

The latter are another apparently perfect couple with secrets of their own, and the ongoing revelations about each of the characters – all have a dark side – ramp up the drama to a genuinely tense climax and make for a thrilling ride that’s well worth catching.

**** Steve Adams


4 Stars on Tue, 14 May 2019

The Girl On The Train has become quite a phenomenon over the past four years. In 2015, Paula Hawkins’ novel topped The New York Times list of fiction bestsellers for three months. The following year, Emily Blunt’s portrayal of the book’s protagonist, Rachel Watson, in the movie adaptation earned her a BAFTA nomination, and now we have the stage version, which opened in Wolverhampton on Monday.

Directed by Anthony Banks and starring Samantha Womack as Rachel, the plot revolves around Womack’s character, a dipsomaniac who commutes to a job that she no longer holds, dismissed as a consequence of her drinking, and creates an idealistic image of a couple, who Rachel calls Jess and Jason, she regularly observes from the window of her daily train journey.

The play opens with Rachel nursing a hangover in her kitchen, empty wine bottles all over the draining board, as reality forces itself into her life when ex-husband Tom Watson (Adam Jackson-Smith) calls to reprimand Rachel over an alcohol-fuelled incident, of which she has no recollection apart from bloodied hands and a head would.

Tom tells her that his former nanny, Megan Hipwell (Kirsty Oswald), is missing and begins to plant seeds of doubt into Rachel’s mind about her involvement in this mystery. The plot thickens when Rachel realises that Megan is ‘Jess’ of the couple in the house next to the railway line.

Rachel decides to start her own investigation into Megan’s disappearance and, on the false premise of being an old friend of Megan, visits Scott Hipwell (Oliver Farnworth) and tells him that she saw his wife kissing another man from her seat on the train. Scott mentions that Megan had been seeing a therapist, Kamal Abdic (Naeem Hayat) and, lo and behold, we have another name in the frame.

Like Rachel, the audience is now turning into budding Miss Marples, with each character analysed for their plausibility in their involvement in Megan’s disappearance and, in the following scene, Rachel receives a knock on the door from a police officer, Detective Inspector Gaskill {John Dougall}, who sees Rachel as a potential suspect, acting on information from Anna Watson (Lowenna Melrose), Tom’s wife and the woman that he had been seeing when their marriage ended.

After the interval, the plot takes the audience on a roller coaster of possibilities, with revelations from each character seeming to implicate them and provide both the motive and opportunity to commit the crime.

As the plot unravels, Womack’s performance as Rachel becomes ever more impressive. As the only member of this fine ensemble cast that features in every scene, the role is quite demanding, and it is a testimony to her dramatic skills that she succeeds in transporting the audience on her journey through the investigation into Megan’s disappearance. Of course, having played Ronnie Mitchell in EastEnders for several years, Womack’s casting boosted audience numbers, though, for this reviewer, she is remembered for her roles in Pie In The Sky and Game On more than 20 years ago.

The staging of the play is simple but very effective, with sets kept to a minimum, without being minimalist, whilst the use of lighting in the production is evocative, especially during the most dramatic set pieces in the play. Furthermore, the music and sound effects are intriguingly employed to maintain the momentum of the narrative.

As the play reaches its denouement, Banks’ direction succeeds in sustaining the suspense on stage while the audience slowly begins to piece together the identity of the perpetrator of the crime.

With its themes of betrayal, manipulation, isolation, obsession and violence, The Girl On The Train can be approached from many levels, whether that is as a whodunnit or from the more complex perspective of the feminine narrators that challenge the role of women in relation to the male characters in the play.

This production of Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel’s adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ novel for the stage succeeds in driving the story with a full head of steam, and The Girl On The Train is one express service that is well worth catching before it reaches its final destination at the end of this year.

The Girl On The Train at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre (18-23 March) Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (13-18 May), Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury (27 May-1 June), The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham (26-31 August). See www.girlonthetrainplay.com

Stephen Taylor


4 Stars on Tue, 19 Mar 2019

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