The Lady Vanishes
Based on the film directed by Alfred Hitchcock written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, adapted by Antony Lampard
Bill Kenwright’s Classic Thriller Theatre Company.
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
Having spent ten successful years as the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, Bill Kenwright must have exhausted that lady’s prodigious output but, keeping to the same style, has changed the name to The Classic Thriller Theatre Company. This is the third play to be produced under that title, and the first stage adaptation of the famous Hitchcock film.
Quite a challenge to stage as the action mainly takes place on a train with a railway station beginning and end, but they have made a remarkably good job of it with designer Morgan Large’s very impressive set creating realistic stations where the intricate construction of curved roof panels swing around to become a train with multiple carriages, and we have to imagine the corridor where much of the action takes place. Lighting by Charlie Morgan Jones is used to great effect, giving the train ‘movement’ as it flickers through the carriage windows from behind.
The time is the eve of World War Two and the story begins in Austria where an avalanche has blocked all the tracks—one excuse Southern Rail hasn’t yet had need for! Swastikas hang from the roof and Gestapo officials stride purposefully about making their presence felt.
It’s a large cast, thirteen strong, headed by Juliet Mills as Miss Froy with her husband Maxwell Caulfield as the sinister Dr Hartz and director Morgan Large makes full use of them all, making the Austrian terminal a hive of frantic activity as well as an introduction to some of the main characters. Miss Foyle sits at a table writing, tall, gangly musician Max (Matt Barber) ill-advisedly remonstrates with one of the Gestapo and heiress Iris (Lorna Firzgerald) is saying a fond farewell to her friend Blanche before a blow to her head knocks her briefly unconscious just before she gets on the train. This is significant as events develop, Mrs Froy disappears without trace, and no one believes Iris’s story.
The two insouciant cricket-mad Englishmen, Charters (Robert Duncan) and Caldicott (Ben Nealon), bumble delightfully and happily through the whole as a comical double act. Their only concern is to get back to England for the Test Match—and it is, surprisingly, their knowledge of the Dymchurch miniature railway which almost saves the day.
Mills and Caulfield, both experienced actors, give splendid and perfectly judged slightly understated performances, in contrast to the equally well-judged but often frenzied and bickering activity of Fitzgerald and Barber who are trying desperately to solve the mystery. Even with such a large cast, there is still a little doubling up and Elizabeth Payne, Mark Carlisle and Natalie Law do sterling work with two or three characters each, making each and every one credible.
It’s a fast-moving and fascinating production, very much a thriller and a mystery with a surprise twist at the end—well it is a surprise if you haven’t seen the film. There is plenty of comedy too and, all in all, you get a lot for your money. A very enjoyable way to spend a cold winter’s evening.