Writers: Sidney Gilliat/Frank Launder
Adapted by: Antony Lampard
Director: Roy Marsden
Designer: Morgan Large
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
What do you do if you want to make a stage version of a 1930s Alfred Hitchcock comedy thriller with wild adventures on a train for an oddly assorted couple who hate each so much they’re bound to fall in love? Well, if it’s 39 Steps, you play the whole story out with four determinedly incompetent actors and improvised props and have an international hit. The Lady Vanishes, now apparently being staged for the first time, gets a more conventional treatment which still works pretty well.
The Classic Thriller Theatre Company is in the middle of a lengthy tour of Antony Lampard’s clever adaptation of the original Gilliat/Launder script. In the Hitchcock film, an avalanche causes a delay to a train out of an Alpine town and the local Gasthaus is crammed with assorted travellers, a disproportionate number of them British. In the Lampard version, this is truncated, with the opening scenes very atmospherically staged in the railway station (all drifting smoke and the receding arches of the train shed).
The play follows the film pretty closely, with the mysterious disappearance of Miss Froy, apparently a harmless governess returning home, followed by the denial of her existence by all and sundry. Iris, a young socialite who took tea with Miss Froy shortly before her disappearance, decides to track her down, aided by musicologist Max (Gilbert in the film). They are aided in their triumph over villainous Middle-Europeans (not inappropriate in 1938) by a couple of cricket-mad buffers, Charters and Caldicott, and impeded by the cowardly lawyer Todhunter (given the implausible forename of Eric by Lampard) who is terrified from the start that someone will recognise him with his mistress.
The initial script, dating to a year or two before the film, didn’t relate to Fascism. Hitchcock developed it as a vague underlying threat: it wouldn’t do to be too explicit in the year of the Munich Agreement. Antony Lampard and Roy Marsden, rightly, bring out the Swastikas. A very large, shaven-headed Nazi officer patrols the platforms and corridors, for much of the time not doing much, but a menacing presence.
Roy Marsden’s production manages some splendidly confused ensemble scenes for his cast of 13 and a gloriously comic sword fight for Max and Iris with Mark Carlisle’s expansive Signor Doppo, but at times relies too much on explosions, gunshots, shouts and screams to create drama.
Characters are clearly defined and, for the most part, know how far the tongue should go in the cheek. Robert Duncan and Ben Nealon wisely do not attempt an exact impersonation of the ineffable Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne and their Charters/Caldicott double act gets funnier and truer throughout the evening. Philip Lowrie wobbles emotionally to great effect as Eric Todhunter (even if nobody can wobble physically and vocally quite as well as Cecil Parker), with Elizabeth Payne excellent as his contemptuous mistress. Maxwell Caulfield’s Dr. Hartz is at his best as the smoothly reassuring charmer before he, rather unconvincingly, draws a gun.
Star billing goes to an actor who is missing for the whole central part of the performance, but Juliet Mills is a wise and sympathetic Miss Froy. Lorna Fitzgerald’s determined Iris and Matt Barber’s offhand Max (a nice touch of Richard Briers now and then) battle nobly against both the forces of Fascism and the excessive “smartness” of their characters.
Morgan Large’s designs work well, the carriage corridor closing up over the impressive opening station scene and opening out again for the arrival in London. Roy Marsden presides over a slick production with plenty of pace.
Touring nationwide | Image: Paul Coltas