The Lady Vanishes stops off at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh train platform this week (Monday 18 to Saturday 23 February) with a production from “The Classic Thriller Theatre Company”. Based on the 1938 film classic directed by Alfred Hitchcock (which was based on “The Wheel Spins” a 1936 mystery novel by British writer Ethel Lina White), this production has the luxury of a very experienced cast that includes Juliet Mills (Miss Froy), Maxwell Caulfield (Dr Hartz), Lorna Fitzgerald (Iris) and Matt Barber (Max) as main cast with Robert Duncan and Ben Nealon providing the outright comedy team of “Charters and Caldicott”. Philip Lowrie and Elizabeth Payne make an at times interesting extra marital couple as Eric and Margaret.
Is all of this combined stage talent enough though to deliver a theatrical success of a story that depends so much on the tension on the enclosed space of a moving train that cinema has the luxury of other visual techniques to use to tell the story? Can we here tell the story of meeting someone on a train, that person disappearing whilst the train is moving and then everyone that you know who met the two of you denying the other person’s existence? The answer is quite honestly NO to these questions. There are many reasons for this, but one of the main problems that any stage production is going to have here is how to re-create those inner train locations successfully, and no amount of gentle swaying back and forth of the cast in the train corridors to try and re-create the motion of the train is going to work; at times this reminded me of Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise moving from side to side whenever the USS Enterprise was under attack.
When you have the “gift” of an experienced cast like this who are going to provide exactly what they are required to do on stage, you have to start asking some questions as to where some problems really reside for this production from “The Classic Thriller Theatre Company”. There is no element of “thriller suspense” here and it seems all too often that gentle comedy moving at times into outright farce is the production order of the day. Even then, making allowances for the original source material, do we still find humour from German accents on English words, or what are now social stereotyped English men whose only language seems to be “cricket” (a language I do not understand at all)? This is perhaps now the problem with any production like this – the people represented here are now little more than cartoon characters (if they were ever even anything more at the original time), and they, along with their world, have simply gone. Any company is never going to win at times here as, play it for laughs and it will often fail, play it seriously and it will all too often now get laughs and it is only down to the huge experience of this cast that this production is working on any level at all.
What this production does have though is some good low-tech staging that is perfect for the economics of hopefully making some profit out of a touring production. Why spend large sums of money on state of the art visuals for your train station when a effectively simple backdrop will do the job just as well? Also making good use of limited stage space our train carriage doors doubling up as dining room carriage walls. Sadly though, this format does not let us enter the physical space of the carriages as an audience very well (we only view from the outside), so that intimacy of conversation in an enclosed small space is lost and it offers limited options of where our lady has vanished to. Some good attention to period costume and details help to also lift this production a little above the average “period” theatrical production and the overall show was still, despite my personal negatives here, well received by the audience at the end of everything.
Review by Tom King