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The Lady Vanishes

by on 26 November 2019

Mind the Gap

The Lady Vanishes

by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, adapted by Anthony Lampard

Classic Thriller Theatre Company at the Ashcroft Theatre, Fairfield Halls, Croydon until 29th November, then on tour until 7th December

Review by Claire Alexander

Alfred Hitchcock directed over forty films, many of which are embedded in the national consciousness. Who fails to remember the horror of The Birds or the fist clenching fear of Vertigo? The Lady Vanishes came around the middle of his career and is less horror than thriller/mystery but nevertheless up there among his best and most remembered – ranked 15th on a website I looked at!

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I was therefore interested to see what a stage production would make of it. It is set primarily on a train and this also creates a challenge for staging.

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The Classic Thriller Theatre Company’s production adheres closely to Hitchcock’s original, based on the film script by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, and this version is adapted by Antony Lampard. The whole concept is based on Ethel Lina White’s 1936 novel, The Wheel Spins. We are introduced to an Austrian railway station in the 1930s just as Nazi Germany is coming to power. A spacious set and a backcloth depicting a grand middle European station gave the stage a good sense of depth. The trans-European train to London is delayed because of an avalanche somewhere over the Alps and a motley group of travellers are busy making alternative arrangements while they wait for the avalanche to be cleared. Charters (Denis Lil) and Caldicott (Ben Nealon) are determined to get to the test match in Manchester; Margaret (Rosie Thomson) and Eric Lady Vanishes (3170)(Mark Wynter) have a somewhat stormy illicit romance; Max (Nicholas Audsley) is a young engineer who also happens to have an interest in middle European folk music! Signor Doppo (Martin Carroll) is an Italian magician who also seems to have a special skill in making people disappear – a decoy perhaps? Dr Hartz (Andrew Lancel) is a German neurologist on his way to collect a mystery patient whom he needs to treat. Iris Henderson (Scarlett Archer) is a flighty young woman on her way home to get married and finally frumpy Miss Froy (Gwen Taylor) – the vanishing lady of the title – is a governess to an Austrian family on her way home to see her family. Or is she?

Lady Vanishes (2620)Suddenly (and somewhat too quickly, given we have been told to expect a long delay, which is a slight inconsistency in the script) the avalanche is cleared and we board the train. The set closes at this point to a couple of enclosed compartments, very authentic to trains of that era, and is also regularly transformed into the restaurant car. Miss Froy has befriended Iris, who (conveniently perhaps) had a bang on the head as she runs to board the train. But as Iris dozes off Miss Froy ‘disappears’ and when she wakes all the other passengers deny any knowledge of her ever existing! There is even another passenger who looks uncannily like Miss Froy sitting in her seat. As Iris becomes increasingly bewildered and then frantic about the whereabouts of her new friend the other passengers are slow to believe her. Dr Hartz diagnoses a head injury from the bang at the station! Only Max is one to help perhaps driven more by budding romance than his real belief in her story.

I don’t want to spoil the plot for those who want the surprise. Suffice to say it turns out to be an elaborate plot to kidnap Miss Froy who of course is not at all who she seems. After a brief and somewhat implausible shoot-out the English passengers get the train back on track and finally get to London. Charters and Caldicott discover the test match has been rained off and Iris’s fiancée is not there to meet her. Perhaps a good job as Max and Iris have (inevitably) fallen in love.

Lady Vanishes (2716)This production was entirely faithful to the 1930s. I liked the German welcome to station over the tannoy just before curtain up and this focussed our attention nicely. Both the train interior and the station set worked well, although the small compartments in which some of the scenes took place did obscure and limit the action rather. Perhaps that also accentuated the claustrophobia of the train however. Fortunately the restaurant car opened it up and ultimately most of the passengers and action congregated there. A soundscape of steam train added to the atmosphere. Some actors were better than others at subtly and consistently sustaining the swaying of the moving train. I would like to have seen this more as it added to the sense of place. On the whole the production was also played with that slightly heightened style which would have been of its time, but I liked Gwen Taylor’s performance as the frumpy and unflustered Miss Froy. She brought a sense of realism as she sat at the station quietly eating her supper, waiting for the train to leave. There was also some lovely banter from some of the other passengers and I thought the relaxed double act of Denis Lil and Ben Nealon as the quintessential English cricket fans added a real understated comedy to the action. If they couldn’t get to Old Trafford they’d make their own test match from sugar lumps!!

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This was an accomplished and experienced cast and they worked hard with energy and commitment to bring the script to life and maintain the style but I am not sure how successfully the individual parts added up to the whole. The action was plodding at times and at points in the second half it almost felt more like farce, as people jumped in and out of train compartments looking for each other. I never really got a sense of Hitchcockian tension and the mystery was relatively easily solved. But if the Croydon audience on a damp November Monday is anything to go by The Lady Vanishes will prove popular and a reminder that there is still a place for old fashioned mystery in the theatre of 2019.

Claire Alexander
November 2019

Photography by Paul Coltas

 

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