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Review: The Girl on the Train at Liverpool Playhouse ***1/2

You wait for one railway-set mystery to arrive and then two turn up at Merseyside theatres in quick succession.

Hot on the heels – or perhaps that should be tracks – of Bill Kenwright’s The Lady Vanishes, we now have another vanishing woman in The Girl on the Train, and another female protagonist busy being persuaded she is not just mistaken but mad.

But instead of a convoluted plot involving plucky heiresses, dastardly Nazis and a pair of cricket bores, this stage adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ publishing phenomenon is a much grittier and grubbier affair.

Samantha Womack is Rachel, the lank-haired, barely-functioning alcoholic – the titular girl on the train – whose obsession with a seemingly perfect couple she glimpses from the window of her commuter service leads her to become embroiled in the woman’s subsequent disappearance.

Where is Megan Hipwell (Kirsty Oswald)? Has some terrible fate befallen her? And if so, who is responsible?

Given that Hawkins has sold more than 15 million copies of her psychological thriller, and it was turned in to a film that grossed $173m at the box office, there are plenty of people out there who already know whodunit.

But the production succeeds in creating a troubling, palpable sense of tension and suspense right to the final denouement. Even if that does become ridiculously melodramatic.

Oliver Farnworth (Scott Hipwell) and Samantha Womack as Rachel. Photos by Manuel Harlan

The adaptation takes the book’s multiple first-person narration and tweaks it in to a more workable theatrical structure that happily avoids anyone actively breaking the fourth wall.

There’s a distinct whiff of Doctor Foster about Hawkins booze-supping spurned wife (Womack), oily ex-husband (the chisel-jawed Adam Jackson-Smith) and new younger trophy wife (Lowenna Melrose) and baby.

Womack impresses as the desperate and isolated Rachel, although while she and Oswald share the bulk of the story’s dramatic narrative some of the other characters remain rather two-dimensional.

But in the midst of the general gloom there’s a particularly enjoyable turn from John Dougall as the wry and laconic Scottish detective investigating the case.

There’s also a nifty multimedia representation of the commuter train, rattling relentlessly through suburbia, although most of the action actually unfolds in the static surrounding of homes, from Rachel’s dismal flat to the soft furnishings and swanky kitchens of the life she lost. If only someone could give the backcloth a good iron.

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