Writer: Antony Lampard
based on the screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder
Director: Roy Marsden
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
There’s something about the isolated confines of a railway train that makes for a great setting for a mystery. There’s Murder on the Orient Express, of course, but Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 film The Lady Vanishes works just as well.
Originally a novel (The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White), Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder added an espionage element that appealed to Britain’s pre-war concerns. Antony Lampard’s stage adaptation leans in to the setting, explicitly setting the story in the world of Nazi-occupied Austria. It is an uneasy world, where British and American tourists rub shoulders with black-clad officers with Swastika armbands.
Lampard’s script struggles at times with the rapid introduction of a large cast of characters in a short space of time, but Roy Marsden’s direction keeps the opening scenes as cogent as they are fast-paced as characters mill around the railway station, waiting for their delayed train.
It is in these moments that Denis Lill and Ben Nealon first impress as comic duo Charters and Caldicott, obsessed with cricket above all else. Rosie Thomson also injects a level of humour, albeit with a more melancholy tinge, as Margaret, a married woman travelling with Mark Wynter’s Eric, the lover whose affection, she suspects, is waning.
Less effective is Scarlett Archer’s socialite Iris – which is unfortunate given that her character becomes the principal lead of the piece. However, her relationship with Gwen Taylor’s Miss Froy, a tweedy governess, is pleasant and believable enough that, when Miss Froy goes missing, one can quite empathise with Iris’s determination to found out what has happened.
The mystery deepens as the train’s staff and other passengers deny Miss Froy ever existed. Life on board the train is presented well in designer Morgan Large’s set, although the constant dressing and re-dressing of the stage as the action moves from carriage to carriage does begin to prove wearisome.
Andrew Lancel is satisfyingly oily as the neurologist who tries to convince Iris that Miss Froy was a figment of her imagination, although he does play the villain so well that his role is never quite as ambiguous as it deserves to be.
A second act shootout is stage-managed well, but its resolution feels rushed. Similarly, while the reveal of the real story behind Miss Froy’s disappearance is handled well, the play’s concluding scene flubs the resolution in a way that discolours the play preceding it.
The result is still a mildly entertaining evening of theatre. But if one were hoping for a Hitchcock film to be enhanced by being adapted for the stage, such hope, like the lady, vanishes.
Continues until 30 November 2019 | Image: Paul Coltas