THE LADY VANISHES - ARTS THEATRE
I don’t wish to boast but I have always been blessed with a terrible memory. I have seen Hitchcock’s classic thriller many times but for the life of me, I just couldn’t remember the plot. I knew of course that the setting is a steam train and at some point (possibly around Welwyn North?) a lady vanishes. This filmic amnesia meant I could approach the theatrical incarnation of the 1930s yarn with a completely open mind. It is billed as a thriller, and thrills are what I duly expected.
The new touring production, directed by Roy Marsden (no less) is a peculiarly mixed bag. Let’s start with the positives. There is a puzzling mystery at the heart of this tale of espionage. The heart of the story is, of course, the eponymously vanished lady – a tweedy elderly lady called Miss Froy who one moment was on a train on the German-Swiss border, and the next is gone. Although the plot is given away well before the ending of the play, it does sort of keep you guessing.
Other good things include a rather impressive opening scene in an Austrian railway station circa 1939. There is Wagner in the air as Nazi banners unfurl amid the steam clouds of the unseen locomotives. We meet the protagonists set before us in classic Agatha Christie/John Buchan style. Here is Miss Froy, a seemingly forgetful old dear and a pair of charming coves who are up on cricket and down Johnnie Foreigner including a station official who has surely learnt his English from ‘Allo Allo’.
There are genuinely delightful performances here from old-stager Dennis Lill doing his bewildered old colonel act and a crackingly Woosterish turn by Ben Nealon as his younger colleague desperate to hear the latest Test March score. We also encounter our heroine, Iris, a posh young lady who is on her way back home to get married to Lord Something but meets handsome young chap Max (Nicholas Audsley) – both are destined to become rather good amateur sleuths with a romantic twist. Throw into the mix a ‘sinister’ Italian conjuror, a blind beggar and a posse of armband-wearing Nazis.
After a short while the impressive station set is transformed into the railway carriages that will locate most of the remaining action. It is here that the show, I felt, began to come apart. The railway carriage set looked very stylish –sliding doors to represent compartments but placed so far forward that the action was squeezed into a narrow space meaning that everything seemed cramped and two-dimensional. I was never convinced that this really was a train though some of the actors (but by no means all) remembered to sway now and again to suggest movement. This small inattention to detail marked what was, I hate to say, a generally sloppy production. Fight scenes, for instance, reminded me of an old TV sketch where fists missed chins by miles; a magician’s vanishing cabinet into which nobody vanished and the action inside the train compartments impossible to see by anyone sitting near the end of a row.
One could forgive each of these basic stage errors if the central characters were in any way believable or sympathetic. Alas there was no chemistry between the ‘goodies’ Iris and Max. The actors simply couldn’t break out of their Wodehouse stereotypes. Antony Lampard’s adaptation setting the journey in Nazi Europe (rather than the film’s imaginary country), should have been a strong idea but none of the Nazis we saw were in any way convincing beyond being comic stereotypes.
I was about to give up on this silly production when the last five minutes suddenly created something surprising. We were back in a large station hall but this time in good old Victoria Station. With a touching underscore, dreamily atmospheric lighting and a bold (though historically inaccurate) glimpse of a Churchill figure, the show restored some theatricality into this old and very dated railway story. However this was a very brief encounter and within moments, the mood, like the lady, had vanished. I could tell you more about this show but alas, my memory has failed.