Review: The Girl on the Train – innovative, immersive, but empty

Erin Harrington reviews The Court Theatre’s production of The Girl on the Train, adapted by Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel from Paula Hawkins’ novel, directed by Holly Chappell, Friday 21 May, 2022.

The Court Theatre has been as much a victim of the pandemic as any other company that stages big shows and relies on big audiences. After a string of cancellations, psychological thriller The Girl on the Train is its first mainstage show since the exceptional summer musical Little Shop of Horrors. You can see the appeal. Adaptations are often a safe bet commercially, especially when there’s such strong name recognition. The Court’s move from its current ‘leaky boat’ The Shed in Addington and into the city’s Performing Arts Precinct is on the horizon, so it’s important to remind audiences why the theatre is considered one of the city’s flagship organisations and why it is deserving of support. Director Holly Chappell’s innovative, immersive production succeeds on many fronts, but it’s a beautiful house built on busted foundations. It showcases one of the Court’s greatest assets, its talented creative and production design team, but can’t hide the significant weaknesses of its source material.

Paula Hawkins’ wildly popular 2015 novel, which was adapted into a film in 2016, is a nasty domestic potboiler about trauma and violence that braids the perspectives of three troubled women. Alcoholic wreck Rachel Watson (Renee Lyons) fumbles though blacked-out memories and a sea of self-loathing after the end of her marriage to charmer Tom (Cameron Douglas). Her younger ‘replacement’ Anna (Emma Katene), Mrs Watson the second, is an exhausted new mum who feels increasingly isolated. Megan Hipwell (Kira Josephson), the Watsons’ new neighbour, has a seemingly perfect life but a closet full of skeletons.

This stage adaptation, which premiered in the UK in 2019, strips away many of the book’s supporting characters – including (sadly) Rachel’s nosy landlady – and narrows its focus to Rachel. She is tormented by her infertility, which she blames for the collapse of her life. She’s erratic. She harasses Anna relentlessly.  Each day she goes through the motions and rides the train into the city to work. At one of the stops she can see into the home of newlyweds Megan and Scott (James Kupa) – who she has dubbed Jason and Jess – who have moved just a few doors down from Rachel’s old home, and life, with Tom. After months’ worth of voyeuristic, increasingly obsessive peeks, Rachel has constructed a narrative of domestic bliss in a fantasy that offsets her own misery. This production transplants the action from a commuter town in England to somewhere in New Zealand, which doesn’t entirely make sense, but we’ll go with it.

The play starts with Rachel, in her disgusting flat, a massive cut on her head, puking into a pizza box; it’s pretty funny. But within minutes of curtain, and with oddly few stakes established, she learns that Megan disappeared the same night she blacked out and gashed her head, and she throws herself into a vodka-fueled amateur investigation. She crosses paths with likeable cop D I Gaskill (Roy Snow), who quickly pegs her as a suspect, and later hottie therapist Kamal (Ahmed Youssef), who Rachel spied in an embrace with Megan, shortly before the disappearance. Rachel acts as a proxy for the audience, leading us through parallel investigations: to find out what happened to Megan that Saturday night, and what’s hiding in the black hole of her alcoholic amnesia.

The production’s sophisticated and immersive production design plunges us down into Rachel’s subjective, off-kilter experience. Panels on the front of the wide set, which resembles shipping containers lined up on a freight train, move to reveal various spaces, like their own passenger compartments: living rooms, a therapist’s office, an ominous underpass. In a particularly inspired bit of trickery requiring some significant stage management, these rooms move around as the panels slide about. Practically, this opens up the action to new areas of the audience. Dramatically, this creates an unsettling feeling as rooms grow or shrink, changing slightly, as Rachel drifts in and out of sobriety, unpeeling secrets in people’s private domestic spaces, moving closer to the play’s unpleasant truths.  

These physical shifts are supported by a large-scale AV design. Enormous projections seamlessly integrate flashbacks and replay fragmented memories, sometimes projecting massive, hazy images of the room we’re actually in, or the character who is recounting memories, against the rippled sides of the shipping containers. Shifting, crackling geometric patterns recall both the lines of commuter train maps and the flickers of a broken television, as distorted voices swing around the periphery of the audience. These queasy shifts are exacerbated by the convulsive roar and rattle of the ever-present trains. It constructs an unsettling and engrossing expression of how we remember, and recount, acts of violence. It’s busy and jangly, but it’s also extremely effective – although sometimes at the expense of the audibility of the actors.

But the show doesn’t succeed, perhaps can’t succeed, because the script is an absolute dog. The adaptors have not figured out how to translate the already stilted literary material or its procedural beats onto stage, and into people’s mouths, effectively. Dialogue is clunky, didactic, obvious and dreary. The action is sluggish, oddly paced, and at times comically improbable. There’s no sense of the passage of time. Characterisation is paper-thin; the women are fragile and baby-obsessed, and the men (Gaskill excepted) are various shades of shitty. It features one particular nasty act of violence that in New Zealand will get you jailed, but flippantly papers it over in a bizarre denouement. And so on.

It’s obvious that this production has worked extremely hard to inject some empathy and nuance into the characters and their relationships, and to find an arc that feels right. The cast are certainly throwing everything they have at it – especially Lyons, who carries the show – but it’s like watching people walk into a wind. Perhaps it will find a shape that works as the season develops.

But I don’t get it. Even a cursory look at the pretty brutal reception of overseas productions suggests that this script has been programmed by the Court on the strength of name recognition, and the hope for bums on seats, and not artistic merit. I find it cynical. My companion, and some people we talk with after, discuss how shows like this burn through the Court audience’s good will, and make people less likely to take a punt.

When you go see a production you really want to see it succeed. This show has stellar production values, a wholly integrated creative vision, a terrific production team, and performers who collectively have led some of the best shows this city has seen in recent years. They deserve significant praise for their efforts here. But why not do right by them – not throw them under a train – and give them material worthy of their talents?

The Girl on the Train runs at the Court Theatre until 25 June 2022.

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