No one can deny that Alfred Hitchcock is one of the greatest directors or the much loved and admired status of his creations. Often thought of as his first major successful film, his big break you may say, The Lady Vanishes was released in 1939. It has now been adapted for the stage by the Classic Thriller Theatre Company and I was lucky enough to catch it at Cardiff’s New Theatre yesterday. I am highly aware of the film as members of my family has also watched it and, due to the nature as an adaptation, I will be referring to it especially in the case of the adaptation of the narrative.
Ranking 36th in the British Film Institute’s list of best British films of the 20th century, The Lady Vanishes follows Iris, a socialite, who is travelling by train to England for her wedding. Due to an accident she is introduced to the mild-mannered Miss Froy. After falling asleep, Iris is puzzled on waking to find that all of the passengers deny her companion’s presence completely. Iris turns detective and, with the help of Max, they are drawn to discover why the lady had vanished (adapted from Cardiff’s New Theatre).
Despite being set in a closed circle and one similar to more ensemble prices like Murder on the Orient Express, in this production the characters are far more individualised than they may appear. The opening scene does set them off into their pairs of high continue to hold until the very final scenes, however I found singular characters growing on me rather than the pair as a whole. In my experience, I found that I grew warmer to these individual characters without too much explanation from the plot other than an appreciation of the portrayal put forth by the actors. It’s a strange experience finding yourself liking a character without having too many reasons to explain it but it’s quite a human one and a feeling not too far removed from Iris’ feelings towards Max and those he returns to her as they transition from callous bitter commuters into partners.
I found myself warming to Lorna Fitzgerald’s Iris and Matt Barber’s Max more and more as the play went on and that’s exactly as it should be. Neither begins the play as the most likeable of people but both the characters and actors come into their own, and their best, when they are working together with common beliefs which allows more chemistry to develop between the two. I do also need to give a shout out to Barber’s realisation acting during the second act which stood out as an absolute highlight.
Charters and Caldicott are two of the most famous parts from Hitchcock’s film and Robert Duncan and Ben Nealon certainly lived up to the detailed comedic reputation. Elizabeth Payne also provides a stand out performance as Margaret (and Frau Kummer) And again I found myself warming to her throughout the excellently witty short dialogue.
Juliet Mills literally stars as Miss Froy. She has surprisingly little but to see what she does with the role is incredibly interesting. Again you’re drawn to her immediately but this time through her friendly characteristics and charm and also the intrigue surrounding her. Unfortunately, the big scene in which this intrigue comes full circle and is fulfilled is marred significantly in this production, as discussed below, so it may mar some people’s opinion of the character. However in the final scene Mills builds all this intrigue and wonder back up without a single word.
And initial appeal of this production is its setting on a train and in the correlating stations. The set is overall a very simple but effective one with the highlight coming as the two sectors join together to make the train carts. Ingeniously realist sliding doors create apartments which can be closed, concealing the occupants, immediately add to the mystery. Unfortunately, other than these compartments there was not much else to be gained from the set itself other than the closed characteristics of having to pass by the other occupants of the train. Aspects which could have been used to raise tension, such as the possibility of Miss Froy’s and reappearing on the glass or the emergency stop, feel like they are never implemented to their fullest potential.
The script, and as a result the narrative, is surprisingly simplistic. This is especially regarding the setting of occupied Austria and the presentation of the Nazi occupation leading up to the Second World War. Obviously, this period in history is very well known but the implementation in this narrative just felt quite black and white and lacking the nuance that hindsight could have added to this adaptive production of the original film.
This production does attempt to deviate slightly from the film in the replacement of the folk singer with an accordion-playing never in the train station. However, the death of the Folk singer is also removed and the clear threats present in this segment are removed entirely. Due to these alterations and the script as a whole, the steaks of the narrative are at a rock bottom level for the majority of the production and even the whole of the first act. They are only raised slightly when Iris panicked at Miss Froy’s disappearance in the middle of the first act. However, the true stakes of life and death which have, apparently, permeated the narrative up until this point are not introduced until the middle of the second act. I did enjoy watching the plot points come together, however, I believe this may have been due to my knowledge of the film as the first scene felt quite slow in terms of pace so I can imagine that the watching experience may be different for someone coming to the story from a completely blind perspective.
The sound mixing and directorial decisions surrounding this also felt completely off. The cast varied between lines which were shouting and softly spoken within individual roles which made their conversations clash in volume and delivery. However, the main issue comes in the amount of the overly loud pop guns used. The scene in which they are used is the height of the tension, drama and one in which the most story details are revealed. It’s even the best scene for the cast to sink their teeth into to fully show their talents in bringing these characters and their motives to life. However, what this production delivered was a scene filled with loud pop gun noises which became flatly annoying, especially as the far more palatable background gun noise was used in the exact same scene. The noises of the pop guns became highly irritating and covered most of the vital important dialogue and it also made a vital plot point far less believable. If the noises of these pop guns were saved for impactful moments then I would understand far more, however, this scene combined with the black and white implication of the wider narrative soured both the believability and the exact impactful moments required to make everything pay off.
Therefore, The Lady Vanishes held a lot of intriguing and excitement as I went into it. However, the adaptation of the narrative and attempts to divert from the film misfired and caused a confusing and irritating main scene which caused an unbelievability to major aspects of the plot. I would highly recommend seeing this production for the portrayals from the cast. Each of them is highly dedicated and allow you to warm to most characters who, otherwise would, seem quite one-note. They are the life and breath of this production and make it a far more enjoyable experience.
The Lady Vanishes is running at Cardiff’s New Theatre until the 20th of July and you can book your tickets here!