Review: Complex mystery stays on track with Vertigo's The Girl on the Train

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It’s a high-speed train that leaves the station down at Vertigo.

In two hours, director Jack Grinhaus’s production of The Girl on the Train has to cover the numerous ingenious twists and turns that unfold in the 320 pages of Paula Hawkins’ 2015 runaway bestseller.

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British playwrights Duncan Abel and Rachel Wagstaff, who adapted the novel, and the 2016 film based on it, pared the plot down considerably, making it a vehicle for seven actors, which is, in itself, an amazing feat. It becomes a bare-bones, who-did-what and why, psychological thriller.

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Rachel Watson (Lauren Brotman) wakes up from another of her frequent alcoholic stupors with a gash on her forehead and blood on her hands. She only ever remembers fragments from these frequent blackouts that ruined her marriage and caused her to lose her job, leaving her lonely, depressed and desperate. What’s left of Rachel’s life is as messy and pitiful as her apartment.

Vertigo
Vertigo Theatre’s Girl on the Train with Lauren Brotman and Jamie Konchak. Courtesy, Fifth Wall Media Photo by Tim Nguyen Co. /Tim Nguyen Co.

She’s just poured herself a morning vodka when her former husband Tom (Tyrell Crews) arrives to tell her his neighbour Megan Hipwell (Filsan Dualeh) has disappeared, and the police will probably be around to talk to Rachel because she was in the neighbourhood last night. Rachel had barged into the house she once shared with Tom to harass his new wife Anna (Anna Cummer) and their infant daughter, a rather regular occurrence when she’s intoxicated.

Here’s where things get complicated because Rachel has been spying on Megan and her husband Scott (Stafford Perry) for months from the train she rides into the city each day. She fantasized Megan and Scott were a perfect couple and, just maybe, her envy went a little too far.

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Rachel has to try to solve Megan’s disappearance before Inspector Glaskill (Jamie Konchak) zeroes in on her as a prime suspect.

Rachel’s amateur sleuthing will take her from her apartment to Megan’s home, Tom and Anna’s house, the police station, the office of Megan’s psychologist Kamal Abdic (Mike Tan), several outdoor locations, and onto the train itself. This is accomplished with amazing technical wizardry courtesy of Hanne Loosen’s highly innovative and ingenious set, Brendan Briceland’s projection designs, Narda McCarroll’s atmospheric lighting, and Allison Lynch’s sound and music designs. The stage is always as alive as the actors themselves, and Grinhaus has the actors move the set pieces, adding greatly to the total visual effect.

As Rachel, Brotman delivers a carefully calculated, confident performance. Rachel’s life may be chaotic but there is nothing random in Brotman’s performance. It’s beautifully modulated. Before Rachel began drinking, she was a witty, intelligent, vital woman, and Brotman lets us see glimpses of this, especially in the scenes with Konchak and Tan where she can give insults and insights as quickly as they can.

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Filsan Dualeh and Stafford Perry in Vertigo Theatre’s The Girl on the Train. Courtesy, Fifth Wall Media Photo by Tim Nguyen Co. /Tim Nguyen Co.

It would be unfair to comment too much on the other performances without giving away some vital clues, but suffice it to say these are actors who know how to dish out clues as well as red herrings.

Crews is obliging, understanding and helpful. There’s a bit of a shrew in Cummer’s Anna, some macho posturing from Perry, and major condescending from Tan. Dualeh shows the pain that drives Megan’s actions, and Konchak’s superior bluster is an obvious professional facade.

Grinhaus knows the whole setup for The Girl on the Train is ludicrous. It’s all too easy for Rachel to insinuate herself into every other character’s spaces, let alone their lives. She’s like an alcoholic Miss Marple, but that’s the fun of watching her solve the disappearance, and possible murder. Grinhaus realizes it’s better to have an audience laughing with you than at you, so he emphasizes the humour of the situations. There are huge laughs in the show, and some great sustained levity, which takes the audience off balance for some gasps, as when Rachel and Scott’s attempts to comfort each other turn into passion. The audience went dead silent, not sure what to expect, and this is great plotting on Grinhaus’ part.

One of the big problems with The Girl on the Train, and it begins with the script, is that the emotional and physical stakes are so low. We don’t really fear for the characters, especially Rachel, as we should, given there is a malicious, sadistic killer watching everything she’s doing. The final confrontation should be much scarier and much tenser than it is.

The Girl on the Train is a ride worth taking and it runs at Vertigo until April 14. It will work entirely differently for people who are familiar with the novel or movie than it will for people blissfully unaware those vehicles even exist.

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