A train fills the stage, images of scenery flashing quickly by filling its windows as a dark, dramatic music score fills our ears.
Then we meet Rachel (perfectly played by Samantha Womack), swigging from a bottle of wine in her mess of a depressing, shabby kitchen, before promptly throwing up her liquid breakfast into a pizza delivery box. Her sniffs, the constant attempted tidying of her greasy hair and overly cautious movements all point to her being alcohol dependent – and we soon learn why when her neat ex-husband Tom (Adam Jackson-Smith) pays a visit to check she’s ok.
Replaced in Tom’s affections by a perfect new wife Anna (Lowenna Melrose) and a perfect new baby (which Rachel herself couldn’t give him), she’s been left to dwell (through the bottom of a bottle) about just how her life came to this.
Samantha Womack stays on stage practically all through the play, moving from scene to scene under a spotlight as the scenery is changed behind her – and she is a truly impressive presence throughout.
We learn that she’s a lonely singleton, still in love with her husband, who spends her commute staring out of the train window as it stops at a signal in front of the house she used to share with her husband and fixating on a neighbour of his – a floaty, ethereal presence of a woman Megan Hipwell played by Kirsty Oswald – who appears to have the perfect marriage to Scott (Oliver Farnworth), something she so desperately wants herself.
Menace enters the play as we learn that Megan has gone missing – and that Rachel had a blackout (and a cut to the forehead) on the very night she disappeared.
A mystery whodunit wouldn’t, of course, be complete without the mandatory detective character – and John Dougall as D I Gaskill brings some light relief to the story with some great dialogue exchanges between him and Rachel where we’re allowed to raise a smile.
The scenes between Rachel and Kamal Abdic (Naeem Hayat), Megan’s therapist, were cleverly staged – as were the ‘reenactments’ and ‘flashbacks’ of things that had happened between characters as described by Rachel.
Based on the best-selling 2015 novel by Paula Hawkins and the film adaptation starring Emily Blunt in 2016, the play follows the plot of both – and whilst some scenarios, such as Rachel befriending Scott so quickly and being allowed into the investigation – might seem far-fetched, to me, it didn’t matter. Though I’ve seen the film and knew the ultimate ending, I was still totally engaged as I was swept along by the performances and actions of the characters. (My other half hadn’t seen the film or read the book and at the interval, had several theories as to what was to be revealed down the line and found the play exciting and enthralling).
Naturally, I won’t spoil the ending or give any hints into what exactly is going on in this confusing mesh of incidents (much like Rachel’s mind which is beset by blackouts) but all will become clear in the end and you’ll enjoy the journey getting there (albeit with a racing mind and heartbeat).
The Girl on The Train is at Cardiff’s New Theatre until 16 November. More information at www.newtheatrecardiff.co.uk