The Lady Vanishes – Churchill Theatre

Adapted by Derek Webb, from the novel by Ethel Lina White

Artistic Direction by Fiona Main

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Dipping into the endless sensibilities and prudish tropes of the 1930s English middle class, this period thriller spins itself into a spiffing evening for Baronesses and Teaboys alike. The more sinister notions of Hitchcock’s film adaptation are treated with levity, confirming that Threepenny Theatrical production is more than equipped for the entire family. If anything, and rightly, this production of the ever-popular and thrilling The Lady Vanishes finds far more in common with the comedy of Derek Webb’s adaptation of the source material, Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins, than the 1938 film.

A train journey from Chișinău, Moldova to Trieste, Italy sounds like a delightful affair, even if this particular train is burdened with a wide variety of travellers – many of whom seem to originate from England, enabling the cast to mercifully turn the laughter towards their characters, and the stuffy visage of the English travellers blinded to the world outside of their bubble. A thankful departure from the foreigner tropes, Fiona Main’s vision for the piece maintains all of Webb’s eccentricities whilst containing the decorum and wit to know how to turn The Lady Vanishes into a gleeful jab at those with more money than sense (or class).

As young socialite Iris Carr (Rebekah Lansley) wrestles with a persistent migraine, she is aided by the comfort and friendship of Miss Froy, a governess returning home to see her aged (only 84 years young, mind you) parents. They hit it off marvellously, even with the substandard tea in the dining cart. But as the night moves on, and Carr slips in and out of sleep, Miss Froy is nowhere to be found: even more peculiarly, no one seems to have any recollection she was even onboard…

Before their vanishing act, however, the audience is treated to a rather enjoyable and well-structured sense of characterisation from Rae Lomond’s Miss. Froy. She works well with Lansley, the pair sharing most of the stage time other than Carr’s eventual love interest and only trustworthy source of aid after Froy’s disappearance, Greg Mccafferty Thomson as Max Hare. Lansley, as always, captures the whimsy and appeal of it all and provides the production’s only genuine senses of dread and foreboding in the second act. But where they have their jolliest of good times is with Main’s depreciation of the 30’s English haughtiness – joining Simon Boothroyd’s Doctor in a few less-than-subtle nods and winks to the audience.

The comedy is what Threepenny Theatricals succeed in setting up and delivering, which is necessary, as Webb’s script forgoes much of the original build-up and exposition, resulting in the production having to locate areas to shoehorn in a line or so to tie all the threads together – sometimes large threads which occur without the involvement of even the principal cast. Slightly befuddling, moments where director Main and Larry Weil make small appearances as the ‘newlywed’ Me and Mrs Todhunter are necessary scenes for the story but do benefit from Main’s rather brutal and acid-tongued delivery to a more than deserving Weil.

Devouring each moment of a smaller role, Gillian Robertson takes the side character of Mrs Barnes and creates a delightfully hellish nightmare for the other passengers as the entirely one-sided conversationalist. It’s also a sliver of insight into Main’s direction go timing, ensuring that both Lansley and Rae Lomond get in on the joke and maintain their character while allowing the pacing of Robertson to flow unimpeded. But there are a few too many stops alongside the slickness of the productions scene transitions, usually aided greatly with Mike Pedlowski’s lighting to offer a flickering old-fashioned build-up of the trains electrics, but too frequently will the fade to black and re-sets for scene changes stagnate the momentum – even as Neil French’s sound design works hard to fill the gaps.

But when the scenes do get going, the performers carry spiffing energy in their scenes, Boothroyd’s villainous Doctor a much-welcomed addition, one moustache twirl away from the height of evildoers. Less antagonistic is Carr’s only real sense of ‘safety’ on the train in McCafferty Thomson’s Max and Geoff Lee’s Professor. They’re dubious of Carr’s claims of a vanishing woman, but begin to listen to her story – though in the outdated fashion for these characters, it’s less so out of belief and more out of Carr being a young, attractive and single woman. Thomson has the most fun, sharing some touching and tension-heavy scenes with Lansley.

The mystery of it all may be unravelled for some earlier than expected – but Threepenny Theatricals take a solid stab at a classic, though relatively complicated production to undertake. Webb’s adaptation of the novel suffers from its time of writing, with two-dimensional characters and a lack-lustre sense of tension. Threepenny Theatricals rise above these issues to produce a tightly organised piece of comedic malarkey which entertains, raises a smile, and even manages to poke fun at itself.

A Spiffing Comedic Malarkey

The Lady Vanishes runs at Churchill Theatre until May 13th. Thursday – Saturday at 19.30pm.
Running time – two hours and twenty minutes, with one interval.

Tickets for which may be obtained here.


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