Writer: Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder
Adaptor: Antony Lampard
Director: Roy Marsden
Reviewer: David Guest
A suspense-filled comedy thriller with tongue firmly in cheek is just the ticket for audiences who enjoy quality edge of the seat drama. The Lady Vanishes is an adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 film, itself adapted from the 1936 mystery novel The Wheel Spins by British Golden Age crime writer Ethel Lina White about an elderly governess who disappears during a train journey across Europe and a young socialite who is disbelieved when she reports the fact.
This new, pacey stage adaptation by Antony Lampard (from Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder’s film script) is perfect fare for Bill Kenwright’s Classic Thriller Theatre Company, which until 2015 produced a successful series of Agatha Christie plays on stage and has now slipped neatly into finding other thrillers to produce.
It’s easy to see why this particular story with its strong plot is so irresistible: indeed, it has been filmed for cinema twice, for TV just six years ago, and has also been adapted for other regional productions twice in the past 10 years. It is interesting to note how many Hitchcock classics have been transferred to the stage, as knowledge of the originals from the Master of Suspense could prove a handicap, with theatrical versions unlikely to be able to reproduce his cinematic flair and genius.
However, director Roy Marsden and an extremely able cast know what they are working with, realise the expectations and ensure it’s full steam ahead for a gripping ride, with plenty of mysterious characters, romance, humour, and nail-biting tension. A lot of the success is down to the two very likeable and engaging young leads – Lorna Fitzgerald as the strong-headed silk stocking headed back to London to marry someone she cares little about and Matt Barber as fellow passenger Max (the name of the character in the original novel rather than in the film, for trivia buffs) who gets swept up into the bewildering investigation. Both play off each other with confidence and a pleasing lightness of touch – one can imagine them as the Queen of Crime’s Tommy and Tuppence should new casting on stage or screen ever be required.
Juliet Mills is a charming and whimsical Miss Froy, the scatterbrained vanishing lady of the title, with a collection of secrets that are only fully exposed by the playing of an Austrian folk tune, while Maxwell Caulfield has a lot of fun with his sinister German brain specialist Dr Hartz, who initially seems eager to offer help to the English damsel in distress. Perfect casting too of the infamous English cricket enthusiasts Charters and Caldicott with company regulars Robert Duncan and Ben Nealon, more concerned with getting home in time for the Test Match than in the criminal activities around them, yet eventually proving themselves as reliable action men who help save the day.
Designer Morgan Large almost runs away with providing the star of the show with an atmospheric station set (for Austria and London) and an adaptable train carriage, all of which capture the 1930s ambience. This is enhanced by lighting designer Charlie Morgan Jones and effective (and occasionally creepy) sound design by Dan Samson.
If it all seems rather twee and out of date, then it is to the company’s credit that all the characters are three dimensional, the plot rattles along and the drama never slides into a siding unless the story demands it. There’s a sustained gunfight and even a surprise character walk-on worthy of a Hitchcockian cameo. And the ever-present Nazi threat is often unsettling, with a particularly ominous performance by Joe Reisig as an unpleasant official.
The Lady Vanishes is a well-produced, inoffensive and enjoyable offering that provides two hours of solid, high-calibre entertainment, plenty of laughs and bucketfuls of adventurous spirit.
Runs until: 16 March 2019 | Image: Paul Coltas