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The Girl on the Train arrives at West Yorkshire Playhouse

Lead role: Jill Halfpenny in The Girl on the Train. (Picture: Richard Davenport).
Lead role: Jill Halfpenny in The Girl on the Train. (Picture: Richard Davenport).
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It’s a bestseller that became a Hollywood movie and now a stage play. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad on West Yorkshire Playhouse’s The Girl on the Train.

Joe Murphy sounds far too calm.

Maybe I’m just suspicious because I’ve spent the past day with my head buried in the twisting, turning murder mystery novel The Girl on the Train, but no-one should sound as calm as he does. Not when he’s a matter of hours away from revealing the world premiere of the stage version of The Girl on the Train.

“You just have to trust the actors and trust the process,” says the director charged with putting the novel on stage. “At this point, you just have to trust that the team has done a really beautiful job and that we have really talented actors and let them own the piece.”

Paula Hawkins’ novel is a global publishing phenomenon, it debuted at number one in the New York Times bestseller list in February 2015 and has gone on to sell 20 million copies. I read it on Tuesday in a single sitting. That’s how engrossing it is – and my suspicion around Murphy’s calmness is because the behaviour of the characters Hawkins creates in this whodunnit murder mystery is sketched with such detail that it gets under your skin and into your psyche.

Just over a year after the novel hit the bestseller charts, a movie version was released, starring Emily Blunt. A stage version, then, was perhaps inevitable.

Although, was it? The book tells the story of three women whose lives intersect around a murder. Anna, Megan and the book’s protagonist Rachel, relate their stories in the first person. The movie is able to use voiceover to get close to the style of the book, but how can it translate to the stage? Plus, the title itself suggests something that would surely present too great a challenge for the stage: don’t you need a train?

“The main character doesn’t actually spend a lot of time on a train. She is either in her flat or in the homes of other characters which, in itself, presents you with a dramatic question,” says Murphy.

“Then there is a quest for Rachel; she wants to find out what has happened to this missing woman and she wants to solve the mystery and in the process perhaps heal herself. So you don’t really need the train – we decided to keep her off the train as much as possible and make the piece itself feel like a runaway train with the audience being the people who are perhaps on the train looking at the lives unfolding in front of them on stage.”

The part of Rachel is key to making this piece work. With Emily Blunt taking the role in the movie (although she bears little resemblance to the description Hawkins gives the reader), Jill Halfpenny takes the mantle in the stage version. Perhaps most widely known for her work in British soaps, she is an accomplished stage actor.

“She was right at the top of the list of names when we started talking about the project,” says Murphy. “She’s done everything from TV to stage and film and she has the perfect mix of being popular and accessible, but with a lot more going on.”

With the success of the book and an A-list starring movie already available, Murphy might be excused for feeling pressure, but he insists it is the same as with any play. “I always just want to do the best job I can with the script,” he says. And a final note – for anyone who knows either the book or movie and know how it ends.

“There is a twist at the end for the audience who already know the story.”

At West Yorkshire Playhouse, to June 9. 0113 2137700.