The Lady Vanishes, review: Congress Theatre, until December 7

A cavernous, echoing European station, steaming locomotives, and a Vanishing Lady. Bill Kenwright’s Classic Thriller Company is back in town.

Friday, 6th December 2019, 3:44 pm
From left: Gwen Taylor, Joe Reisig, Martin Carroll and Scarlett Archer. Photograph by Paul Coltas
From left: Gwen Taylor, Joe Reisig, Martin Carroll and Scarlett Archer. Photograph by Paul Coltas

Classic indeed, The Lady Vanishes is the grainy 1938 Hitchcock movie that you could watch a dozen times and still enjoy. And this production, staged with style and authenticity and just enough nostalgia, does full justice to the original.

For designer Morgan Large, the challenges are practical as much as artistic. Although topped and tailed by station scenes, the main action takes place on a moving train. There is just enough rumble and lurch to keep the illusion alive, and scene changes deftly move the action from compartments to dining car to luggage van. Ah, compartments: set back from the carriage facade like little alcoves, the sight-lines are compromised and the dialogue is not too easy to follow.

And Monday’s opening night did suffer some sound problems in Act One. Quite unusually in these high-tech times, the actors do not have personal mics, and the float microphones at the front of the stage were either faulty or set too low. Result: muffled sound and baffled punters.

Thankfully, the issues were fully sorted in the interval and Act Two was clear as a bell. It also picked up pace impressively as the Central European Express neared the tantalising safety of the neutral Swiss border. Faithful to Hitchcock’s original, the plot centres on improbable spies and heroic young amateurs, and every actor makes the very best of the material.

Aside from that initial sound issue, Act One had proved a little bit long and linear. The story moves steadily but not grippingly – in part because (spoiler alert) as best we know, dear old Miss Froy has merely pottered down the train, rather than being terrifyingly kidnapped by a foreign power. Gwen Taylor, always a welcome presence on an Eastbourne stage, plays her with an endearing but knowing twinkle.

As heroine Iris, Scarlett Archer excels: a striking stage presence and a passionate saviour of the Empire. Alongside, Nicholas Audsley’s Max is slightly underwritten but he convincingly delivers the courage without the chauvinism. A cast without a weak link gives superb support, notably Andrew Lancel’s stylishly lucid Dr Hartz. There are smashing cameos, too, from Mark Wynter as an elderly roue on an unlikely fling with Rosie Thomson’s housewife from Margate, and from Ben Nealon and Denis Lill as the priceless pair of cricket lovers, desperate to get home for the Test match.

It’s a rather odd genre, the comedy thriller. When the SS officer struts haughtily past, do we chuckle or shudder? A little of each. Indeed, director Roy Marsden allows his actors the licence to enjoy even the cliched bits, and he touches on the paradox of Nazi Germany in those immediate pre-War years – some of the officials are merely bumblers in uniform, but others are sinister and darkly evil. The German accents and language, incidentally, are immaculate.

It all adds up. Nothing too heavy, just a rattling tale of derring-do with tongue in cheek, and a sense of warmth for all Hitch fans – not to mention students of pre-War Central European railways, who could probably watch with a well-thumbed timetable in their hands. Now that’s what you call nostalgia.

Four things to do in the Eastbourne area. Click here to read more.

Four things to do in the Hastings area. Click here to read more.

Four things to do in East Sussex. Click here to read more.

Discover the bizarre inhabitants of Britain: an interview with cartoonist Chelsea Renton. Click here to read more.