The play is synonymous with the 1938 British mystery thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave. The film itself was #based on the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White. This stage production has been adapted by Antony Lampard and directed by Roy Marsden ,best known for his portrayal of Adam Dalgliesh in the television dramatizations of P. D. James’s detective novels.
Curtain up reveals a continental railway station, bedecked in Nazi Regalia. This is a Bill Kenwright production, guaranteeing an impressive set, and sumptuous costumes for a large cast which Chris Cumming choreographs pleasingly in the station scenes. The station itself, and surrounding hotels, are full as an avalanche has temporarily closed the railway line. Nazi officials strut, which, combined with the avalanche dangers, create a sense of foreboding as to what is to follow.
As the travellers converge on the platform so we are introduced to the different characters, a motley collection of what are now fairly standard stereotypes. Brexit casts an accidental shadow over the dialogue as a Nazi official promises that England is due for a shock very soon, and English toffs provide the template for Boris Johnson’s negotiating technique by speaking more slowly, but loudly, emphasising to Johnny Foreigner that they have to acquiesce because we are British. Comic, but awkward.
Scarlett Archer excels in a beautiful purple suit as English socialite Iris Henderson, who discovers that her elderly travelling companion, Miss Froy, has disappeared while she was sleeping. She is the mainstay of the show, elegant, compelling, and convincing as someone whose sanity comes into question as the very existence of Miss Froy, played delightfully by Gwen Taylor, is brought into doubt.
I remember Taylor in her career defining role as Amy battling her nemesis Johanna Van Gyseghem, Linda. While the years have rolled on, the twinkle in her eye remains, her trademark laconic, acerbic turn of phrase, still perfect.
Surprisingly there is a fair bit of comedy to be found, most of it delivered by spiffing Englishmen Denis Lill, as Charteris and Ben Nealon as Caldecott. The cricket loving duo appear oblivious to all around them politically, and physically. A sugar bowl is merely a handy receptacle to provide enough sugar cubes to demonstrate a contentious cricketing decision.
The set, by Morgan Large, sweeps from the expanses of galleried railway station to the intimacy of the train compartment, the climactic final scene in particular in the station is enhanced by steam and shadows, with a stirring musical score.
Aficionados of the film will not be disappointed, and the age profile of the audience was skewed towards those who will have been familiar with the film. Well- acted, it is satisfying and lavishly presented. However, for me, despite all the good things, the stage version found it impossible to recreate the close- up claustrophobia that a train carriage, and compartment, generates. A slick veneer could not disguise a lack of intimacy in the production.
The Lady Vanishes runs until the 12th October, and continues on nationwide tour.