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The Lady Vanishes

by on 12 March 2019

Now You See Her, Now You Don’t

The Lady Vanishes

by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, adapted by Anthony Lampard

Classic Thriller Theatre at Richmond Theatre until 16th March, then on tour until 9th November

Review by Mark Aspen

Now here’s another spiffing yarn, fully gung-ho and stuffed with stereotypes. The Lady Vanishes is absolutely topping!

Bill Kenwright’s The Classic Thriller Theatre Company’s stage version is adapted from Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery thriller. The film was released in 1938, before his style became heavily psychological, and was based on Ethel Lina White’s novel The Wheel Spins, written two years earlier.

The play’s setting in in Austria in late spring 1938, immediately after the Anschluß. Germany had just annexed Austria and we find ourselves in a grand railway station somewhere to the west of the country. The vaulted glazed roof is now hung with eagle and swastika banners and everyone in authority, even the railway porters, wears swastika armbands. This is a gift for designer Morgan Large to create a magnificent edifice in sepia, like a vintage travel postcard, but certainly not on postcard scale, as the roof soars up, lost in smoke and steam.

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Then a clever transform into an international express train of the period. Richmond Theatre has seen quite a few clever train interiors on its stage recently, but this is the most period-precise: all tasselled lampshades, elegant grey panelling and Biedermeier Revival fittings and fixtures.

This all sounds very serious, but then director Roy Marsden populates it with the stereotypes, a frightfully nice deb, a pair of what-ho English cricket fanatics, bullet-head and bull-necked Nazis, a dapper Italian with pencil moustache, and we have all the makings of a very entertaining evening’s whodunit … and howdunit and whydunit. Amongst the action and daring-do there is humour and suspense. However, the humour is lightly touched and the suspense leavened with self-deprecating wit.

The convoluted plot revolves around well-heeled Iris Henderson, who is reluctantly returning from Nice to London to marry daddy’s choice of a fiancé, who is titled but tiresome. At this Austrian railway interchange, other travellers from different departure points come together, unfortunately delayed by an avalanche on the line out to Zurich, where they are all heading. They are a mixed bunch of wealthy wanderers, from different nationalities. We open in German (which incorporates the audience’s turn-off-mobiles injunction), but oddly very much Hochdeutsch rather than Austrian German, but the majority of the travellers are English and so we settle into public school English as the lingua franca.

Just as well, since most cricket terms are untranslatable, and the two sporty chums, Charters and Caldicott, are totally preoccupied with getting to Old Trafford for the test match. (What, one wonders, and never finds out, were they doing in Budapest, whence they have come?) Robert Duncan and Ben Nealon are priceless in these roles, pulling all the incidental comedy from these characters, who prove to have rock-solid skills (like train driving) when the push comes to the shove.

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Enter mining engineer and amateur folk musicologist Max, who strikes up a love-hate relationship with Iris, following a spat with the Nazi officers in the station. This is fired by the officers’ reaction to the dancing of folk songs on the station concourse, to the music of a blind beggar, an itinerant accordion-player. The Beggar (in a charming cameo by Cara Ballingall) first enters to a haunting tune that engages the travellers, and which we later find is crucial to the plot.

LadyVanishes2Most subtly engaged by the tune, however, is an elderly lady, Miss Froy, ostensibly a just- retired governess, making her way home to England. Juliet Mills, one of Richmond’s most eminent established actresses, plays Miss Froy with a comfortable poise that is well-received by the home audience. Iris forms an acquaintance with Miss Froy and they start as travelling companions when the Zurich train arrives. However, their companionship is short lived, for Miss Froy parenthesises the plot, for she is the eponymous Lady who vanishes, and does so for most of the action.

It is Miss Froy’s disappearance on the train that results in a concatenated chain of events. It appears that nobody on the train admits to seeing Miss Froy. Could it be that the blow to the temple that Iris sustained on the concourse, due to a mishandled piece of ski luggage, has clouded her recollection? However, it is Miss Froy’s singular preference for Harriman’s Herbal Tea that provides the evidence that convinces Max that Iris is not suffering from concussion and launches the two of them on a helter-skelter investigation that, after many hair-raising adventures, drives them into each other’s arms.

As Iris, TV star Lorna Fitzgerald puts over the strong-willed determination of the character, with a bold self-assurance. Matt Barber, as the initially bemused Max, puts great energy into his role. Together as the young leads, they make an appealing and empathetic couple and, with Juliet Mills as the lead name, a strong and integrated core to the cast.

LadyVanishes1Equally strong are the villains. Actors have great fun playing villains and this cast is no exception. Joe Reisig’s powerful performance as the sinister jack-booted and leather coated Nazi is the epitome of the ruthless tough-nut. Signor Doppo is appropriately named, he is undoubtedly double-faced, affable and effusive one moment then sinister and devious the next. Mark Carlisle adds a gleeful nimbleness to this spruce man, an assistant assassin as his calling; an illusionist as the day job. In the guard’s van, his luggage includes a vanishing cabinet and a storage basket with Indian clubs and super-sharp rapiers: for natty tricks or nefarious trickery … who knows?

LadyVanishes6And then there is the arch-villain, the suave Austrian neurologist, Dr Hartz. Sophisticated, well-groomed, urbane, he appears anxious to help the disorientated Iris. Why though is a critically injured patient swathed in bandages bought on-board the train, and why the nun … the nun in high heels to whom he gives instructions for administering a Mickey-Finn? Another well-known actor, Maxwell Caulfield, Juliet Mills’ husband, clearly relishes the role of Dr Hartz, and delivers it with fun-laced aplomb.

The already tortuous plot has at a couple of sub-plots, which have the feeling of vestigial remnants of the film’s screenplay. There is Iris’s American friend Blanche, played with sparkle by Natalie Law, who multi-roles as the polyglot stewardess on the train, and the mysterious nun. Blanche is left in Austria, but a fugitive couple continues with the others on the train, Eric, a prominent barrister, with his mistress Margaret, whom he has short-changed on their secret love tryst in Venice. In spite of her fading hopes, he is not intending to divorce his wife, in case the scandal stymies his chances of becoming a high-court judge. One can see why he wants to keep his head down throughout the shenanigans on the train, but why does he carry a loaded pistol? Is he in the plot to demonstrate discretion as the better part of valour in the shoot-out, or are the couple merely a red-herring? Nevertheless, this does not detract from the exemplary acting in these roles. Ex-Corri star Philip Lowrie portrays the hurt dignity of the prickly Eric with a steely seemliness, and Elizabeth Payne’s brittle Margaret really hits the mark. Payne also doubles as the enigmatic Frau Kummer (another appropriate name as it is the German word for grief), who is seen in the carriage dressed in Miss Froy’s prim tweeds during her disappearance.

Did I mention a shoot-out? A fair-old gun battle takes place on the train when it is diverted into a siding near the Swiss border, with various baddies getting shot and with various goodies getting the token “flesh-wound”. Fight director Richard Leggett has his work cut out in this play with sword fights, clubbings and fist-fights (although some of the punches are very distinctly pulled). More atmosphere is provided by Charlie Morgan Jones’s lighting design and effective Dan Samson atmospheric sound design.

Again vying to upstage the actors, the huffing puffing set is further transmogrified in Victoria station. These stations are quite impressive, and tall enough to be partially hidden even mid-stalls, from which incidentally (and here is a niggle) some of the actors become difficult to hear when they drop into screen mode rather than give full stage projection.

Of course, our heroes arrive successfully home, and able to deliver a message to Winston Churchill (presumably in his position in defence intelligence during Chamberlain’s government), which is as esoterically coded as you can imagine.

The Lady Vanishes manages to be both an evocative period piece and an entertaining spoof. It tells a griping story with its tongue firmly pouched in its cheek. It is as German as Wienersnitzel and as English as Eton mess. A jolly fine show; what, what!

Mark Aspen
March 2019

Photography by Paul Coltas

From → Drama, Reviews

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