Nick Le Mesurier reviews The Lady Vanishes, presented by The Classic Thriller Company at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
Austria. 1939. Hitler is in full control in central Europe and the world is on the brink of war.
On a railway station a group of mainly English passengers is stranded by an avalanche. The others: a dizzy blonde (Iris, played by Scarlett Archer) returning home to be married; Eric (Mark Wynter), a high court judge returning home with his mistress Margaret (Rosie Thomson) after a few weeks' naughtiness in Venice; cricket loving characters Charters (Denis Lill) and Caldicott (Ben Nealton); arrogant young pup Max (Nicholas Audsley); and dotty old lady Miss Froy (Gwen Taylor) impatiently wait for service. By the time the rail is cleared they are already in a state of high tension, each with his or her own motives for getting home quickly.
However, the smoothness of their journey will be disturbed by the sudden disappearance of Miss Froy, who seems to have vanished from an otherwise sealed train. At first only Iris sees the problem, and much of the tension of the story lies in the motives the others have for refusing to help her.
Anyone who knows the classic film directed by Alfred Hitchcock will know and enjoy the claustrophobic atmosphere that a sealed environment can bring to a mystery story. It ought to work on the stage, where there are natural limits to the environment should work with the confines of the story. But it doesn’t. This production failed to raise my heartbeat even a little.
It wasn’t for want of trying. The show opens with music by Wagner from Die Valkyrie and Gotterdammerung. But it’s downhill from there on. The characters fret and squabble, some fall into despair and others scheme in dastardly fashion. There is comic relief in Charters’ and Caldicott’s amiable digressions, and there are plenty of disguises to play with. But the greater threat, which actually comes from outside the train, can only be pointed at. It requires the actors to spend a great deal of time talking about things offstage.
Hitchcock was, of course, a master at twisting the nerves of his characters, and film allowed him to do this getting up close to them. On a large stage that intimacy just isn’t there, and so the characters were left running about and shouting when more subtle expressions and a more intense atmosphere were called for. The flaws in the plot were left open in full view, great holes for actors to fall into.
The show has a set which conveyed the impression of a moving train quite well. But rather than spend the time on the edge of my seat I found myself just sitting back and letting it all wash over me.
* The play runs until September 28. Call 024 7655 3055 or visit www.belgrade.co.uk to book.