King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 film, The Lady Vanishes, is one of those perennial Sunday afternoon treasures, a rollicking spoof packed full of plucky Brits, braving the rise of the Nazis with a stiff gin and an even stiffer upper lip. The Classic Thriller Theatre Company specialises in translating such films into stage productions and here the original script by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder has been adapted by Anthony Lampard. The cast is headed by husband and wife duo, Juliet Mills and Maxwell Caulfield. At this point I should probably disclose that I have a tenuous connection with Mr Caulfield, as he provided the voice for the audio book of my 2007 children’s book, Sebastian Darke: Prince of Fools. He did a darned good job of it, too, and I’m pleased to say his performance here is also rather fine.
The action begins in Austria, where a motley collection of travellers are about to board a train for Switzerland. The station concourse is decorated with ominous swastika flags, while forbidding looking Nazis swagger importantly back and forth, as they enjoy their rising influence on the world’s stage. In the general chaos, young Iris Henderson (Lorna Fitzgerald), who is travelling back to London to meet up with her fiancée, suffers a blow to the head and is promptly taken under the wing of Miss Froy (Juliet Mills), a friendly older lady who helps her aboard the train, dispenses some of the special tea she always carries with her and then, just as it says on the can, rather mysteriously… vanishes. When Iris asks her fellow passengers if they have seen Miss Froy, they all claim there was never any such person. Iris, they insist, got on the train alone.
Only young musical historian, Max (Matt Barber), with whom Iris has already had a less than promising encounter, takes the trouble to help with her inquiries, but it soon becomes clear that the train is packed not so much with travellers as with crates of red herring. There are so many suspects here it’s frankly bewildering. Could it be the two British cricket enthusiasts, Charters (Robert Duncan) and Caldicott (Ben Nealon)? And what about the mysterious brain surgeon, Doctor Hartz (Maxwell Caulfield)? Why does he have somebody swathed in bandages in his compartment? And what’s going on with that secretive couple a few compartments down? We are soon in Agatha Christie territory as the train thunders ever nearer to the Swiss border.
The problem of setting a stage production aboard a moving locomotive is simply and niftily dealt with by an ingenious set change – and there’s no doubting the skill and expertise of the twelve-strong cast as they gamely set about convincing us that we really are aboard a train and this really is something that might happen.
If there’s an overriding issue here, however, it’s with the story itself. What doubtless passed for an amusing and in many ways groundbreaking tale in 1938, now feels faintly preposterous. We are asked, for example, to accept that many passengers on the train will deny the existence of a person, not because they’re involved in a plot, but because they just don’t want to be involved. Hmm.
Perhaps this could have been played more for laughs, but instead, the director has opted to do it straight-faced, even when events are bordering on the risible. And, try as I might, I cannot make every element of the convoluted story fall comfortably into place. What about the Italian illusionist, Signor Doppo (Mark Carlisle)? At one point he attacks Iris and Max with a knife, but even now, a day after I saw the play, I’m not entirely sure why.
Fans of the original film will doubtless have a good time with this. It’s a nostalgic recreation of the original, complete with that familiar feel-good conclusion. Hitchcock has many fans and this production is clearly aimed directly at them. However, whilst I enjoy several parts of the journey, I’m not, I’m afraid, a totally contented passenger.