The Lady Vanishes has all the characteristics you’d expect of one of Alfred Hitchcock‘s early movies. A beautiful heroine, a cast of apparently harmless but possibly slightly sinister bit players who wouldn’t be out of place in an Agatha Christie story, an apparent murder followed by several actual murders and a satisfying resolution. Adapted for the stage by Antony Lampard, The Classic Thriller Theatre Company‘s production is a pacy, pleasing romp.
It’s 1938. Iris Henderson is on her way from Austria to England to wed her fiancé. She bids farewell to a friend at the station amidst a cast of characters all determined to take the same delayed train. When Iris is clonked round the head in a freak accident, a passing governess takes pity on her and escorts her to her carriage. Once on board, the governess goes missing. A search of the train fails to reveal her – and then the other passengers deny having even met her.
Morgan Large‘s set for this show is gorgeous, a train station that transforms into a train carriage complete with working compartments. The costumes are evocative – with the possible exception of a sketchy Nun’s outfit but this may be intentional. (Spoiler alert: she isn’t a nun!) Lighting skilfully echoes the movement of the train as it dashes to the Swiss border; designer Charlie Morgan Jones serves up a gloomy fug in the opening station scene, which becomes claustrophobic when we’re on the train. Choreographer Chris Cuming does his best with the confines of the space – a train carriage without the advantage of varied camera angles – and gives the story a zippy dynamism.
This production boasts a cast of 13, which is particularly impressive for a touring show. Husband and wife Maxwell Caulfield and Juliet Mills headline. Caulfield, here a suitably sinister doctor, is a regular on the UK stage, though may be more familiar to you from Emmerdale or (depending on your age) Grease 2. Mills as the disappearing governess, meanwhile, has an impressive array of acting credits, both on and off screen and has acted with greats such as Jack Lemmon and Jimmy Stewart. Her presence onstage is majestic.
Lorna Fitzgerald as Iris, an EastEnders regular, makes a cracking job of the cut-glass accent and plucky defiance demanded of all good 1930s-style heroines. Matt Barber as her sidekick is a delight – exuberant, enthusiastic, funny and (spoiler again!) a fine fencer. He also nailed a discrete but effective on-board swaying as the train hurtles to its destination. Their final plot twist (no more spoilers!) elicited an audience cheer.
Trying to peel a Hitchcock film off the celluloid and recreate it on stage is always going to be a challenge, yet this cast serve up the beautifully twisty story with gusto and enthusiasm. Director Roy Marsden doffs a respectful cap to the looming menace of the Nazi party without letting that sidetrack from the central thrills and spills.
Notwithstanding a few first night technical issues – audibility and necessary adjustments to the space – this is a fun if not terribly chilling couple of hours. Judging from the chuckles from the packed King’s Theatre audience, however, they didn’t miss the chill one bit.