Arts

Samantha Womack on The Girl on the Train and family ties to one of Belfast's most famous sons

From the intrigues of Walford to the suspense of The Girl on the Train, Samantha Womack takes to the stage of Belfast's Grand Opera House this week for a dramatic adaptation of Paula Hawkins's smash hit novel. Jenny Lee catches up with the former EastEnders actress and discovers her family links to the city

Former EastEnders star Samantha Womack is appearing in The Girl on The Train, the stage version of the best-selling novel

FIRST, there was the best-selling book, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, a page-turning psychological thriller of twists and turns, suspense and drama; then there was the 2016 movie starring Emily Blunt. Now comes the stage production, which stops off in Belfast this week, with former EastEnders actress Samantha Womack playing the role of troubled commuter Rachel Watson.

Separated from her husband and having lost her job, instead of facing up to reality, she seeks solace at the bottom of a bottle. In order to distract herself, Rachel begins watching a couple, Megan and her husband Scott, from the train on her daily commute, envying their seemingly idyllic lifestyle.

When Rachel learns that the woman she’s been secretly watching has suddenly disappeared, she finds herself as a witness and suspect in a thrilling mystery in which she will face bigger revelations than she could ever have anticipated.

The play, which also stars Mr Selfridge and Coronation Street actor Oliver Farnworth, is a physically and mentally demanding role for its 46-year-old leading lady.

I spoke to a hoarse Womack the morning after she had performed two shows; she admitted she "felt like she was hungover" and had "been through the wars".

“There are about 70 pages of dialogue and I'm on stage throughout so it's like being on a two-hour rollercoaster ride. I really need the interval break to go to the toilet because I've been drinking water all the time, pretending it's vodka.

"The matinees are exhausting but they are usually really good shows because I'm in a really dark place as I know I have to perform the show twice. I get my head smashed into a counter, I scream and I shout and the next morning I wake up feeling like I've been to hell and back."

So how does she relax in her spare time? Reading psychological thrillers?

"Weirdly, I'm obsessed with watching crime documentaries on Netflix," she laughs.

Womack is one of the 20 million worldwide to have purchased and enjoyed Paula Hawkins's debut novel when it was published in 2015.

"Having been thoroughly captivated by the novel, the opportunity to take on a role like this is incredibly exciting. I’ve been fascinated by thrillers for a long time and this kind of storytelling, like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, offers us a voyeur's journey into a world which is dangerous and full of suspense.

"It's such a great piece of work. All the characters are flawed and you fell for them as they've all got damaged. There is no goody or baddy like in a normal whodunnit where you are just trying to find out who killed somebody.

"It's more about people's lives and obsessions. It's about perceiving that people have a perfect life, when actually they are feeling isolated and removed from real life. That's very relevant for today's social-media-obsessed world where we are looking through the windows of their screens at supposed perfection into other people’s lives but, of course, that’s never the case."

She believes the suspense translates brilliantly on to the stage. "I'm not really sure it worked in the film medium, but I say that the play is very, very close to the novel and I think we have honoured Paula Hawkins's work."

While she says she's in no way like the character she portrays, Womack finds the role of Rachel "knackering, but very satisfying".

"Because she has lost everything all the boundaries have been removed. So she kisses who she wants, says what she wants and shouts at who she wants. She's very primal and that's quite satisfying and liberating because we live in a society where you constantly have to monitor what you say and what you do and how you act in accordance with social rules."

Brighton-born Womack began her show-business career in 1991 when, at the age of 18, she represented the UK at the Eurovision Song Contest under her maiden name Samantha Janus, coming 10th with the song A Message To Your Heart.

She made her name in the acting world in the mid-1990s with her role as Mandy Wilkins in Game On but she is perhaps best known for playing the role of Ronnie Mitchell in EastEnders, until her character was killed off in 2017.

"It was part of my life for nine years and I’ll always look back fondly on EastEnders, but I haven't watched it in ages. It's like watching your old living room and your old husband. It's too weird," admits Womack, who is still close friends with Rita Simons, who played her sister in the soap.

"I will never get rid of her. We phoned each other last thing at night and first thing in the morning. She feels like my actual sister," she laughs.

And does she think they will work together again in the future?

"We were offered a load of stuff when we left EastEnders but we want to wait for something special, otherwise we were just be cashing in on the Mitchell sisters thing."

Womack, will be busy the rest of this year touring and taking The Girl on the Train to London's West End, but after that the thought of a cheery musical theatre role does appeal to her.

"I was classically trained and a session singer before I was an actor. Musicals are a nice way to bring my vocals back without the cheesy thing of a soap star releasing an album."

Womack last performed in Belfast in 2017, playing the role Morticia in a tour of The Addams Family Musical. More recently she was in the city in April supporting Callum Best in his My Tribute charity football match in aid of the National Association For Children of Alcoholics.

It wasn't until she was in her twenties that Womack discovered that her dad was a half-brother of Callum's mum, George Best's first wife Angie Best.

"I met George professionally but back then I didn't actually know we were related. It was great to come to Belfast with my son and support Callum in this charity effort in honour of his dad."

:: Girl on the Train will be performed at Belfast's Grand Opera House from June 11-15. Goh.co.uk.

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