The Lady Vanishes

From the novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, from the film by Alfred Hitchcock
Adapted for the stage by Andrew Taylor
Jill Freud and Company, in association with the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre Yvonna Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

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It was in 1983 that Jill Freud was asked if she would consider presenting the next Summer Season at Southwold. Happily for Southwold she agreed and her small theatre company is now in its 25th Anniversary season, an integral feature of July and August each year – and happily for Guildford it is spending a week delighting us with its interpretation of this classic comedy thriller.

The action – and there is plenty of action - takes place mostly on the transalpine express. It is 1938, war is looming over Europe and an eclectic group of characters are attempting to escape to England before it’s too late. The train is halted by an avalanche and they are stranded for the night in a handy Italian hotel.

Inventive designer Maurice Rubens makes excellent use of space, creating a hotel with reception, two bedrooms, a dining room, and the hotel exterior with flowery window box below a casement window. It is when they board the train the next day that this amazing set brings gasps of appreciative astonishment as in seconds it has swivelled and transformed itself into a very realistic steam train with carriages, dining car, a lavatory, and trailing plenty of smoke as it jolts along the track, with the passengers swaying as they make their way along the corridor.

There are around twenty characters in the play, and only seven main actors – leading to not only a bit of doubling up, but also the three Assistant Stage Managers take on several parts each, as well as the whole cast being involved in scene shifting, and very slick they are too.

The characters are an eccentric and eclectic mix, the different nationalities enabling the cast to try out their accents in German, French, Italian, or just to stare uncomprehendingly – whichever is appropriate at the time. There is a baroness, a brain surgeon, several nuns, and a couple of men – Charters and Caldicott (Clive Flint and Jonathan Jones). You can almost tell by the names that they are batty cricket mad Englishmen who are more concerned about the Test Match score than the idea that Europe is on the brink of war, but they come up trumps in the end with one being the ‘best small arms marksman at Wisley (or was it Bisley?) and the other being a railway enthusiast and able to get them back on the track as the enemy approaches.

Jill Freud plays the sweet little old governess who becomes the Lady who mysteriously vanishes, while the others who have the ‘luxury’ of playing a single character are Penelope Rawlings as Iris, a society beauty on her way to be married, and Paul Leonard as Gilbert, the objectionable hotel guest who had annoyed her so much by excessive noise above her room, but then makes an abrupt transition to sympathetic collaborator as they try to make sense of the mystifying psychological games that the other passengers seem to be playing.

A very enjoyable intriguing and exciting evening’s entertainment, with the intricate plot keeping the audience guessing to the very end, and some excellent performances by the lead players, well supported by the rest of the cast – but just the same the star of the evening has to be the set!

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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