So what attracted you to the multimillion-selling novel The Girl On The Train? That could be my first question to Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel–but the pair of playwrights seem too full of enthusiasm to warrant such cynicism. It was something of a dream ticket: they were approached by producer Simon Friend to adapt Paula Hawkins’s best-selling thriller for the stage. The show opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds this month and is considered such a safe bet that a national tour is already being planned for next year.
But that’s because they’re starting with such good material, they insist.
“We only do things we love. But everything that we tend to love, well, it makes sense other people love it too,” laughs Wagstaff.
She has previously adapted Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong for the stage.
“I thought I would love to see [The Girl On The Train] on stage, and I would love to dramatize it. So while other people might view it with a raised eyebrow, we know we’re doing it out of love, and because we think it will make a brilliant play.”
The story of an alcoholic young woman who becomes obsessed with solving a crime involving a couple she watches from a train has already been adapted into a film with Emily Blunt–but a theatrical version is quite a different proposition.
In fact, at first glance, it doesn’t necessarily seem like obvious material. Hawkins’s book takes the reader inside the minds of three female protagonists; such tripled perspectives and such interiority could be a challenge to convey onstage while maintaining the pace and zip of a thriller.
No wonder, then, that Wagstaff and Abel have decided to focus just on Rachel: the gin-in-a-tin swigging train rider, who is indeed a compelling character.
“Rachel’s so interesting we wanted to stay with her,” Abel explains. “We thought it was worth really exploring her. She’s a flawed, complex character: sometimes weak, sometimes strong, sometimes frustrating. Because it’s a mystery thriller, people could think it’s a plot-based thing, but we really saw it as a character piece.”
Wagstaff explains they see the material as “a psychologically driven thriller in which a woman is trying to solve a mystery–but in trying to piece together the mystery, she’s actually putting herself back together.” It was the thought of this journey arc becoming clear in front of an audience that made them excited about it, as a play–“because you want a reason, you don’t simply want to cut and paste.”
And it was this that led to them working with Joe Murphy, who recently directed Woyzeck at the Old Vic:
“We knew we wanted him to do it within five minutes of meeting him. He has an excellent storytelling brain,” Abel says.
With such a well-known title, many in the audience will already be familiar with the story. Wagstaff and Abel are aware of the challenges of making it comprehensible to someone coming to it the first time while also providing enough depth for fans, and of balancing the need for faithfulness with the need for freshness.
They’ve been brutal with paring the book back to its essence, to make the plot tightly wound. Some characters are also cut or amalgamated, Wagstaff explains, in order make sure the show isn’t slow or saggy:
“We wanted it to have the pace of a train out of control–once it’s set in motion, there’s a feeling of escalation.”
And there might be a little surprise at the end so that even those who know the story still experience the enjoyable jolt an unexpected denouement brings.
Any changes come with Hawkins’s blessing, however; when the pair met up with her to discuss the script, it turned out their minor twist was actually an idea she had played around with during the writing process.
“She was very kind and encouraging,” Wagstaff says. “If she approves, hopefully, that means something to the fans–that we’ve written it in a spirit of honoring her brilliant and hugely popular work.”
But what about the train? One of the brilliant things about Hawkins’s book is the central trope of a woman starring out of the train window and into the houses of seemingly perfect couples, coloring in their lives with her imagination. We’ve all been there–but gazing out of a grubby commuter train is hardly the most dynamic image to present on stage…
“What we very consciously didn’t want to do is mime a train going back and forwards,” Wagstaff says.
Instead, they place the audience in the voyeur position: the whole stage is framed by a set, by Lily Arnold, that resembles a train window: we become the peepers.
“We’ve set it up as if the audience is on the train looking through the windows into the lives of these people we have on stage,” says Abel. “It was a way of dealing with the train, but also [recreating] one of the strengths of the novel: watching people when they don’t know they’re being watched.”
Casting a show based on a beloved book is also always tricky–we can’t help but cling to the image of Rachel that formed as we read. Their Rachel is Jill Halfpenny, best known for her stints in Coronation Street and EastEnders. It seems the perfect choice: Halfpenny makes a good Everywoman.
“We all have strong pictures in our head and we know the responsibility we have for characters from a book you love,” Wagstaff acknowledges. “You want a Rachel who looks real, who is human, one of us–but actors tend to be better looking. And Jill Halfpenny is very attractive and brilliant, but she’s also warm and down-to-earth and very real. We were so pleased.”
With such popular material at their disposal, why open in Leeds and not the West End? It was about swerving away from the cynicism that might dog such a project, they say.
“We love working in the regions–there’s a really generous spirit and nature there,” Wagstaff says, cautiously contrasting that with her experiences in some London theatres. “If you open a play in the West End, audiences might approach it with a slightly different attitude, more of the ‘Are you trying to do a big hit?’”
She had noticed this with Birdsong, which was more warmly received at regional theatres than in the capital:
“When it was touring, people just came because they wanted to see that play. It’s a huge generalization, but there can be a different feeling in the room.”
“The important thing for us is to do a good show for Leeds, rather than using Leeds as a try-out,” Abel insists.
Still, with 15 million copies of Hawkins’s book sold worldwide, you wouldn’t bet against the show going full steam ahead into the West End–and beyond.
The Girl On The Train is being staged at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, until June 9.
This article originally appeared in Inews on May 18, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.