Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

rachel and tom

Emily Armstrong as Rachel and Richard Ham as Tom

The Girl on the Train

Sutton Arts Theatre


“My name is Rachel and I am an alcoholic” could be the opening line of this psychological thriller. She doesn’t actually say it, but then she doesn’t have to as we open with her hazily stumbling around in her dingy, unkempt, bottle strewn bedsit with its overflowing sink and impressive collection of empties.

Rachel has all the tricks in the alky’s armour from the innocent looking vodka in the water bottle to the fictitious middle ear infection she utilises to explain her unsteadiness.

She is a drunk, with a memory like a badly edited film, spliced together out of order with vital scenes missing, which leaves her floundering trying to remember her involvement in the mystery of the missing Megan Hipwell.

On the face of it her only contribution was being in Megan’s road the night she disappeared. The Hipwells were neighbours of her ex-husband Tom and a drunken Rachel had turned up, again, to hurl abuse at Tom’s new wife Anna. All she can remember of the night is blood on her hands and a cut from a blow to the head.

Paula Hawkins 2015 thriller was a best seller which was transported from London to New York for an indifferent film then back across the Atlantic for a stage adaptation by Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel. Like the book this is a slow burner, a complex jigsaw of seemingly unrelated pieces slowly joined together until the final picture is revealed.

megan and scott

Phebe Bland as Megan with her husband Scott played by Tom Cooper

The story is told through the fractured mind of Rachel in a brilliant performance from Emily Armstrong. It’s easy to play a drunk for laughs, Freddie Frinton made a career out of it, but to play a real drunk, one living a lie much of the time, trying desperately to appear sober and having to wade through a headful of treacle to find the missing pieces of memory, that is a much more difficult task.

Armstrong manages it with aplomb, we have all the hesitancy, the frustration, the exasperation, and even the fear as she grasps the sobering thought that her involvement might be more than just shouting insults at her ex’s new wife in the street where Megan lived. Her mind digs up flashbacks, images of that fateful night, but is she really recalling what happened or are they merely tricks of a befuddled mind?

Richard Ham as Tom is, on the face of it, a caring, sympathetic ex-husband. Their marriage broke up after years of trying for a child. Tom found it difficult to come to terms with that and Rachel, unable to conceive, took to booze. Despite being remarried and now with a child, he still cares for and looks out for Rachel in a convincing performance from Ham.

Laura Hinton’s Anna is a difficult role and she manages it well. She and Rachel have a mutual dislike of each other. Tom had an affair with Anna before he dumped Rachel and married her, but not only that, she has borne him a child which adds to Rachel’s resentment, while Anna resents Tom still seeing an ex who’s sends her texts and turns up drunk to hurl insults.

Then there is the missing Megan. We see her in flashbacks in a fine performance from Phebe Bland. She appears ghost-like in act one, seen on her terrace by Rachel from her train to and from work in the City. 

But after the interval she comes into her own with her cathartic confession to her therapist about her teenage years a powerful, moving, emotional speech full of angst and feeling.

rachel and Gaskill

Rachel being interviewed by Mark Nattrass' Detective Gaskill

The therapist, Kamal Abdic is quiet, professional and unflustered in the confident hands of Lloyd McDonald. He has to be a suspect though after he was seen by Rachel kissing Megan on the day she disappeared, Was it an affair that went wrong?

Another suspect is Scott, Megan’s husband, given a sort of Jekyll and Hyde character by Tom Cooper who cleverly gives us a quiet, worried loving husband for much of the time but with an underlying terrifying anger and propensity for violence at the drop of a hat – and after all aren’t most disappearances  . . . and worse . . . domestics?

That is what Detective Gaskill thinks he is dealing with. Gaskill, played by the reliable Mark Nattrass, is looking at a wife who has walked out, a run of the mill domestic - until Rachel gets involved.

Her accusations and flashbacks intrigue and exasperate Gaskill in equal measure, she is turning his average domestic into a crime thriller which is about to take a dramatic turn.

Rachel could have told the police she saw nothing and that would have ended it for her, but she knew Megan, not personally, she had never met her, but she had watched her from the train, even given her a name, Jess, and a fantasy life she dreamed of for herself.

So, she sets out to find what had happened to her imaginary friend. She wheedles her way in to meet Scott, arranges a session with Abdic, and gives Gaskill a drip feed of things she remembers, or, to be more accurate, thinks she remembers.

Some memories are blurred, perhaps only maybes, some clear as day, even if it is a foggy day. Each piece slowly building the picture to a dramatic finale.

The tension builds slowly with a climax to Act 1 creating a new mystery to solve in Act 2. Everyone is a suspect except Gaskill and Katie Johnson, the silent policewoman taking notes.

Everyone had a motive we discover, even Rachel. After all she was drunk, angry and agitated after slagging off Anna and had a cut on her head and blood on her hands.

tom and anna

Tom and wife Anna, played by Laura Hinton, with baby Evie

Director Dexter Whitehead has paced the action well, building the tension slowly, taking us down cul de sacs along the way as we follow the crumbs of detail to the well disguised denouement.

The excellent acting is matched by an inventive set. A fascination of any production at Sutton Arts is the set and the invention that goes into it. When it comes to setting, this is a difficult play. First of all you can see its relationship with the Hollywood film with plenty of scenes, 15 in all, not including Rachel as the girl on the train half a dozen times.

There is Rachel’s grubby bedsit, the Hipwell’s modern lounge complete with illuminated drinks fridge and a gas fire flickering away, and then Tom’s lounge and French windows out into the garden and the railway tracks.

Throw in the garden, the police interrogation room and the underpass and the stage crew had a busy night. The problem at Sutton is the fact there are no wings and no flies which meant the effect of the railway carriage folds down from the roof on a hinge while the Hipwell’s lounge lies behind a full stage roller blind of a video screen. The grubby flat and Tom’s house are like those pop up books. Open a page, or in this case a wall and it opens into a new scene, aided by some clever lighting from David Ashton.

The video screen gives us the impression of speed, of night or a park designed by Sophie Curran and Spot on Events.

The book has all three woman as narrators, the play limits it largely to just Rachel but the essence is still there as the story is slowly prised from the recesses of Rachel’s mind. It is a cleverly written and executed treat for mystery fans keeping you guessing until the final moments. To 17-09-22.

Roger Clarke


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