Reviewed by Bronagh Grace.
According to the British Film Institute, The Lady Vanishes is ranked as one of the best British films of the twentieth century, an enduring classic from the master of suspense: Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced this recent stage version, adapted by Antony Lampard and presented by The Classic Thriller Theatre Company, will be receiving any similar accolades.
The premise is fairly simple: a young woman, Iris Henderson, travelling via train from Vienna back to London befriends an older lady, Miss Froy, who then mysteriously vanishes along the route. Setting out to find her kindly friend, the protagonist discovers that the other passengers deny ever seeing the older woman. Cue accusations of hallucination, Nazi intrigue and an obnoxious English ‘prince charming’ who’ll act as investigating assistant, love interest and all-round condescending nuisance. All the ingredients are there for a gripping WWII-era mystery. The problem with that is expectations fall into one of two categories: atmospheric Agatha Christie-esque twists and turns or jolly comedic espionage romp. However, The Mousetrap this is not. Nor is it The 39 Steps. It was neither as suspenseful as the former, nor as funny as the latter. Rather than a complementary mix of the two, it ended up a half-baked version of neither. Every development felt predictable, every reaction overwrought. The theatrical challenges in adapting a film, a medium which enjoys advantages in omniscience, editing and subtlety, were clearly on display.
Individual performances were generally good, but actors forced to project and exaggerate dulled the sense of mystery. Progressively, scenes verged on farce as characters were obliged to describe in detail every movement taking place beyond the imaginary train windows, ending in prolonged explanatory dialogue of the ‘now this is happening, now this is happening’ nature. There were many moments of light-hearted, intentional humour sprinkled throughout the play, but I don’t think this was meant to be one of them. The incessant description only served to highlight the lack of imagination on the part of the production team as well as the scriptwriter; theatrical tricks to convey events from afar, such as shadow puppets or projection, were lacking. The result was a strong cast choked by their torturous dialogue, not quite managing to disguise how forced the presentation of nervous energy in a crisis is when you’re rooted to the spot.
Certainly, moments of greater fluidity stood out, injecting some much-needed dynamism into an oft-flat production. The panic created by Lorna Fitzgerald’s Iris in the closing scene of the first act, for instance, provoked a crescendo of well-choreographed chaos. However, the promise offered to audience members as they attend to their pre-ordered interval drinks of a pacier second act is not fulfilled, and the plodding progress of predictability continues. The swift scene changes do provide the sense of movement you’d expect from a vehicular setting, as do the lighting effects, dancing across the stage; however, such transitions fail to compensate adequately for the laborious dialogue.
Indubitably, the stand-out performance was Juliet Mills as Miss Froy, who captured perfectly the gentle but crafty English governess, endearing us to her in the relatively short time she features on stage. Indeed, it was a pity she was the one who vanished. It would of course be difficult for the other actors to successfully distract from the gender stereotypes and clichéd British bullishness of a script adapted from a film that is ‘of its time.’ Even so, for a twenty-first century audience it’s hard not to suppress a sharp intake of breath every time the male lead Max - played by Matt Barber - makes his questionable comments to Iris, such as informing her of how lovely she looks when she smiles. Iris herself, talkative and persistent early in the investigation, fades away when the action proper unfolds, designated to the back of the carriage for the duration of the dénouement or, as I have no doubt Max would have put it had he gotten the chance, ‘the scary bit.’
The actors cannot be blamed for the script however, and unless the adaptation were to be a complete re-imagination for our times, perhaps frown-inducing moments of patriarchal agony are to be expected. Visually, the set was convincing and practical, capturing the atmosphere of the period whilst enabling the brisk transitions between scenes. The sliding train doors which helped us peer into two sleepers at once were clever; it was just a pity nothing more innovative was designed to minimise the endless descriptions of what was occurring beyond the windows. Nonetheless, in the elegant setting of the Edwardian King’s Theatre the play has found a complementary home in Edinburgh and for a theatrical night-out which is visually pleasing and demands little thinking, with some gentle laughs thrown in for good measure, it’ll certainly do the trick.
It wasn’t a train wreck but I don’t think I’d bother boarding again.
The Lady Vanishes runs at the King's Theatre until Saturday 23rd February 2019.