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Brighton Year-Round 2019

The Lady Vanishes

Bill Kenwright, The Classic Thriller Theatre Company

Genre: Adaptation, Comedic, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton


Low Down

Antony Lampard adapts for the stage the famous 1938 film directed by Hitchcock (written by Ethel Lina White and adapted by the Gilliat/Launder screenplay team), directed by Roy Marsden, and a magnificent set by Morgan Large. Lit by Charlie Morgan Jones and with sound by Dan Samson, the choreographer’s Chris Cuming and fight director Richard Leggett. Till November 9th.


After their Agatha Christie run, Bill Kenwright’s The Classic Thriller Theatre Company produced some variable adaptations including singletons by P.D. James and Edgar Wallace. This time though, with The Lady Vanishes, they’ve struck ore.

That’s not just in Antony Lampard’s stage adaptation of the famous 1938 film directed by Hitchcock – written by Ethel Lina White and adapted by the Gilliat/Launder screenplay team. It’s in pacey direction by Roy Marsden, with a magnificent set by Morgan Large – lit noirishly by Charlie Morgan Jones and with atmospheric sound by Dan Samson – and above all in a pitch-perfect ensemble.

It’s difficult to know how much humour the once-famous White injected into The Wheel Spins, the 1936 novel so famously adapted (leading to others of hers). But the adaptors working with Hitchcock blend an ideal frisson of thriller, looming war and sheer fun. And it’s aimed squarely at the British as much as Johnny foreigner, especially as he can’t speak the lingo. Lampard and the cast cherish its preservation in aspic. This is played straight – we’re not laughing at it as in say The 39 Steps but with the winks already there. No-one though could predict Thomas Cook would get such a rueful laugh in 2019.

Scarlett Archer’s Iris – en route to ‘a blue-blooded cheque-chaser’ marriage back home – bumps into Gwen Taylor’s Miss Froy, a retired governess also returning from Austria. Everyone gets caught in a snowstorm and we’re exposed to a receding station and clouds of dry ice swirling around stranded passengers. Later the stage is cut to a corridor opening to two compartments as the sage-green boom swings round to reveal a lovingly-detailed coach corridor. The foreground’s used as a restaurant with green tables and chairs or occasionally a luggage area with baskets and a booth for escapologists. It’s a smart set, smartly used.

Nicholas Audsley’s Max, an engineer who studies musicologist encourages the irritating Schubert-playing accordionist Kirsty King to play. Iris and Max immediately start bickering, a sure sign, though the faux-antagonism’s a bit sketchy (one thing the film makes clearer). Then something hits Iris and Miss Froy helps her onto the train. They exchange pleasantries and Miss Froy’s special Mexican tea. Then as the title has it she vanishes and everyone denies having seen her at all. That bump. Archer and Audsley find a chemistry beyond the creaky 1930w lines and there’s a touching hesitation in the final scenes.

Max isn’t convinced but the mistress of Mark Wynter’s conflict-averse judge Eric is. Rosie Thomson’s Margaret overrides her lover’s anxious desire not to be spotted (both are moonlighting from marriages) and Max who later discovers an empty sachet of that unique tea is too.

What follows is often a comedy of manners. Joe Reisig’s menacing bull-headed Nazi official stalks the corridors brushing aside cricket fanatics Denis Lill’s Charters and Ben Nealon’s Caldicott. Later they flash out passports in almost contemptuous unison before he can command them.

Why has Miss Froy (twinkling, truth-tweaking Taylor) disappeared? Has Iris forgotten she speaks ten languages? Why has that suave brain surgeon Dr Hertz (Andrew Lancel, smooth as hair-oil) arrived to operate on that bandaged mummy? Who’s the mysterious nun (frightened yet vengeful Natalie Law, also Blanche and the stewardess) and why after all does she turn out to be English yet co-operating with that Nazi thug? Should they trust Dr Hertz and take drinks with him? Why have the lead couple slumped over seemingly unconscious? Why is there a shoot-out as two carriages are shunted back towards Austria. And have those cricket-lovers found their true talents as engine drivers (Lill and Nealon’s magnificent apotheosis as cricket-twitterers)? What can the gun-toting Margaret (Thomson tremulous but resolved) ever tell her husband as she shoots at Nazis? And…

Yes a first-class production. Crisply paced, beautifully detailed, this ensemble is flawless save for a couple of slipped accents. Who cares? Also excellent are Martin Carroll as Signor Doppo the Italian conjurer and two officials, and George Haines-Turner as the non-English-speaking Porter. This is the finest non-Christie Bill Kenwright’s team have produced, perhaps their finest ever. And as director, Roy Marsden has come into his own.