The Lady Vanishes

May 12 2023 | By More

★★★☆☆   Magnificent hokum

Church Hill Theatre: Thurs 11 – Sat 13 May 2023
Review by Thom Dibdin

The Lady Vanishes provides for an entertaining evening up at the Church Hill Theatre, where the Threepenny Theatricals draw on 1930s English sensibilities for this train-set period thriller.

Although sharing a name with Hitchcock’s 1938 movie, this is an adaption for the stage by Derek Webb of its source material, The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White. While Webb is more faithful to White’s construction than Hitch ever was, the comedy of his 2019 script is certainly intentional.

Rae Lamond, Simon Boothroyd, Susanne Horsburgh, Rebekah Landsley, Larry Weill and Fiona Main. Pic: Darren Coutts.

It is the comedy which the Threepenny Theatricals succeed in playing up and which keeps the wheels of the production spinning, while a 13-strong cast ensure that although their characters are pretty one-dimensional, the comedy focuses not on the various Johnny Foreigner types, but on the English abroad.

It is all set on the train from Chisinau to Trieste, in a carriage which seems to be rather more burdened with its share of English travellers than might be expected.

Central to the travellers are socialite Iris Carr, who is the ragged end of a larger party of careless young things who have gone on ahead of her, Miss Froy, a governess who is travelling home to see her aged parents for a short holiday, and a mysterious Baroness.

It is to the credit of director Fiona Main and her actors Rebekah Lansley, who plays the seemingly ditzy Iris; Rae Lamond as the forthright older spinster Miss Froy; and Susanne Horsburgh as the guarded Baroness, that it is not immediately apparent which of the ladies is going to vanish.

Rebekah Landsley and Rae Lamond. Pic Darren Coutts

Both Lansley and Lamond have rather more to play with than the rest of the cast, who are largely there to provide a succession of herrings that are not so much red, as salmon pink – once the lady disappears, as the title promises, and the fun begins.

Dorothy Johnstone and Liz Landsman as sisters, the Misses Evelyn and Rose Flood Porter, provide a nicely honed double act, with Rose an echo of Evelyn. Scott Thomson is brilliantly ineffectual as the Reverend Barnes, who steps forward to help Iris when she faints on the platform but finds he can do nothing.

Gillian Robertson, meanwhile, has an absolute ball in her creation of Mrs Barnes, whose one-sided “conversation” with Iris and Miss Froy as they are taking tea together in the restaurant car, is pure poetry of timing as she fails to let either get a word in edgeways.

There is no on-stage evidence that Larry Weil and Fiona Main as Mr and Mrs Todhunter are the newlyweds that the rest of the characters suppose them to be. When the obvious does happen, Main is particularly brutal, channelling Sybil Fawlty in her barbed cynicism.

Which is part of the problem of Webb’s script, which cuts all the pre-train shenanigans of the novel, joining the narrative on the platform as the train is about to depart. Any necessary backstory is filled in with the occasional line, but you can’t help thinking that Threepenny’s choice of a scene-setting film of trains rushing through English countryside would have been better for picking up  on some of that background.

Liz Landsman, Geoff Lee, Gillian Robertson and Dorothy Johnstone. Pic Darren Coutts

The other problem is that the whodunnit element is patently obvious that his recourse to comedy is really the only path available. Although, to the cast’s credit, although the second half could be lighter on its feet, it also contains a nicely developed sense of jeopardy.

When the lady does vanish, the rest of the characters gaslight the remaining lady into believing that the one lost was never there in the first place.

They are led off by Simon Boothroyd’s dastardly Doctor. Boothroyd makes sure that there is never any doubt as to the dubious nature of his character, with nods and winks to the audience that at times verge on gurning.

Only Greg McCafferty Thomson’s slightly dashing Max Hare and Geoff Lee’s Professor can do anything to help. And even they almost allow the baddies to get away.

As hokum goes, this is well done, with plenty of intelligent touches. Main’s blocking of the stage ensures that while there are three distinct playing areas always in view, there is still a sense of claustrophobia, with many of the scenes played out in the train’s corridors where there is little room to get past.

Each scene on the train starts off in proper comedy train sketch mode with flickering footlights and all the actors jigging around due to the train’s movement. This is all helped no end by consistently excellent lighting design from Mike Pendlowski and sound design from Neil French.

However, while the distraction at the start of each scene lasts only a few seconds, the long gap between scenes is off-putting and puts the brakes on the whole production’s pace.

Threepenny Theatricals have made a strong showing in a script that is rather more tricky than it first appears. Thankfully they haven’t gone all-out on the comedy front, but let the very dated characters speak for themselves, holding their somewhat ghastly opinions up for ridicule.

Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes (including one interval)
Church Hill Theatre 33 Morningside Road, EH10 4DR.
Thurs 11 – Sat 13 May 2023
Evenings: 7.30pm; Sat Mat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.


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