Melissa Blease reviews the stage adaption of The Girl on the Train starring Samantha Womack and Oliver Farnworth, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 13 April

British writer Paula Hawkins’ edgy psychological thriller The Girl on the Train, first published in 2015, has sold over 20m copies worldwide. A film version – directed by Tate Taylor, starring Emily Blunt and (bizarrely) set in the US rather than London – followed a year later. If the super-suspenseful, highly addictive structure of the novel was the literary version of an overdose of Red Bull and the film an impoverished supermarket own-brand dissembler, the stage adaptation is a nicely-balanced vodka martini: sharp, invigorating and definitely not sugary-sweet.

For those who have neither read the book nor seen the film (The Girl on the Train must have surely topped the Charades charts by now,) the plot revolves around Rachel Watson, who used to be married to Tom. Tom is now married to Anna, and they have a baby daughter. Tom and Anna wish Rachel would just disappear from their lives completely, rather than constantly haranguing Tom about what ‘might have been.’ Rachel wishes she was anybody except herself. 

When not harassing the ‘new’ Mr and Mrs Watson, Rachel drinks to the point of blacking out, usually after (or during) regular rides on the commuter train that she used to take to work before she was fired from her job for her drinking habit… a journey that happens to follow a route right past (and right in to) Tom and Anna’s house, formerly Rachel’s home.

During the train’s regular halt at a junction, Rachel spots another couple on the balcony of a house just a few doors down from Tom and Anna’s. From Rachel’s skewed perspective, this attractive couple (whom she christens Jason and Jess, but who are actually called Megan and Scott) are the perfect couple, leading a perfect life. But they’re not. In fact, none of the characters in this fraught, taut thriller are, and the whole unfolding tale is one big, horrible train wreck of emotional and psychologically tortuous melodrama.

James Cotterill’s clever sets flits seamlessly between Rachel’s shabby, seedy flat, Tom and Anna’s pristine home, Scott and Megan’s arty apartment, a subway crime scene and, of course, a speeding train, all of which give further context to the fast-moving, beautifully-structured narrative. 

Whether stumbling around her filthy kitchen swigging wine from the bottle or variously manipulating, pleading with or tormenting the characters in her immediate orbit, Samantha Womack offers a stark, authentic portrayal of Rachel – a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Lowenna Melrose is similarly convincing as Tom’s exasperated, confused new wife Anna, and Kirsty Oswald a haunting and vulnerable Megan. As Tom Watson, Adam Jackson-Smith delivers a stand-out performance as a man who turns out to be as opposite to a new father who remains to be both supportive to his ex-wife and attentive to his new wife as it’s possible to get, while Oliver Farnworth takes a while to allow Scott to become ‘known’ to us but eventually offers an intense portrait of a deeply troubled violator/victim.

Both therapist Kamal Abdic (Naeem Hayat) – a complex, largely enigmatic character – and compassionate investigating police officer D I Gaskill (John Dougall) balance, to some degree, the macho-malevolence that increasingly dominates proceedings. But overall, none of the male characters that dominate Rachel’s life are the kind of guys a woman would be comfortable suddenly finding herself alone in a train carriage with, late at night. 

As the drama speeds along to denouement, layer upon layer upon layer of intrigue and tension by turn obscure and reveal foreboding harbingers of a calamitous climax – even if you know whodunnit (for we are, when all is said and done, on classic murder-mystery territory here, notwithstanding the stylish, contemporary edge) you may well find yourself appalled all over again when the culprit responsible for wrecking so many lives is revealed.