Making The Lady Vanishes at the Ashcroft Playhouse

26/11/2019

United KingdomUnited Kingdom The Classic Thriller Theatre Company’s The Lady Vanishes (adapted by Antony Lampard and based on the film written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder and directed by Alfred Hitchcock): Ashcroft Playhouse at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, 25.11.2019. (JB)   

The Classic Thriller Theatre Company’s The Lady Vanishes

Production:

Producer – Bill Kenwright (The Classic Thriller Theatre Company
Director – Roy Marsden
Designer – Morgan Large
Lighting designer – Charlie Morgan Jones
Sound designer – Dan Samson
Choreographer – Chris Cuming
Fight director – Richard Leggett

Cast:

Gwen Taylor – Miss Froy
Scarlett Archer – Iris
Nicholas Audsley – Max
Mark Wynter – Eric
Blanche / Stewardess / Nun – Natalie Law
Porter – George Haines-Turner

Hitchcock was frequently dismissed as pretty trashy by Western critics. His genius and invention were first recognised and secured by a group of French filmmakers, led by François Truffaut, who travelled to Hollywood to interview Hitchcock on the creativity invoked in all his films, revisited in chronological order. I understand there are folks out there making movies which are slices of life said Hitchcock. Mine are slices of cake, he added.

But even Pauline Kael (The New Yorker), frequently waspishly negative on Hitchcock, waxed eloquent on The Lady Vanishes (1938): … some of the finest examples of Hitchcock touches – little shocks and perversities of editing and detail Directed with such skill and velocity that it has come to represent the quintessence of screen suspense. 

Truffaut went further in his Hollywood interview, saying that the film is shown very often in Paris and sometimes I see it twice in one week.  Since I know it by heart, I tell myself each time that I’m going to ignore the plot, to ignore the train and see if it’s really moving, or to look at the transparencies, or to study the camera movements inside the compartments. But each time I become so absorbed by the characters and the story that I’ve yet to to figure out the mechanics of that film.

That hypnotic response of F T is down partly to some very convincing performances from Margaret Lockwood as the leading lady who befriends a charming old woman (Dame May Whitty) who then inexplicably disappears and only with the gentlemanly aid of Michael Redgrave is the mystery solved – a first and last appearance from all three actors in a Hitchcock film. Hitch himself confesses that all the train movements are faked on a very small studio space in Islington, but the viewer is left with the impression that the train is the major character.

So how does all this transliterate into a stage performance? Truffaut’s, transparencies, camera movements, and inside the compartments were all rather well attended to, not least by choreographer Chris Cuming and fight director Richard Leggett. You could feel the sudden involvement of the audience when the artistry of Cuming and Leggett was foremost.

However, whoever was responsible for casting the actors was woefully deaf to timbres of voice required for the three principals. Scarlett Archer is a strikingly glamorous woman but her squeaky high-pitched voice turns Iris from the high drama required into unintentional comedy. A pastiche of the role.

There is the same problem with Gwen Taylor’s Miss Froy whose speaking voice is at soprano coloratura heights, thereby demolishing the charm, kindness, mystery and understanding of the old lady. O Olivia Colman, where were you tonight? This is your role. (Apologies for taking over the casting director’s work.)

Nicholas Audsley as Max. is appropriately handsome, and moves with charm and grace, much helped by the choreography. But his voice is as flat as a pint of beer left out in the sun all day.

Still, there are two young actors to cherish and look out for. Natalie Law in the triple role of Blanche / Stewardess / Nun was especially in tune in that third small but all-important role: she delivered her brief, well-written lines with the required sentiments of fear and anxiety. The plot turns on her. And she knows it. And makes sure we know it too.

George Haines-Turner as the Porter is a tall, muscular, fellow who you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of on a dark night. It feels as though he enjoys terrorising with his might. Odd how audiences are always in thrall to this kind of punishment. Fear not: George will deliver the required terror. This is the kind of thing which Pauline Kael must have had in mind when she wrote of Hitchcock’s touches – little shocks and perversities of editing and detail.

In spite of casting setbacks, the director, Roy Marsden, shows a skilled hand in pacing the comedy-drama with the right rhythms.

Some of the production’s designs (Morgan Large) and especially the lighting designs (Charlie Morgan Jones) are laudable for their aptness, like the steam in the opening scene from the Edwardian period trains. Those of us old enough to remember the intriguingly clean smell of the steam trains will not be campaigning any time soon for someone to produce a perfume of it. But it would have introduced a striking realism to the show to briefly spray the audience with this strange, lost delight. Risky I know. Not everyone would approve but successful stagings are always about risk.

A friend who is fast becoming an unpaid research assistant has forwarded a video and transcript of a BBC 1969 interview with Bryan Forbes at the then, National Film Institute, with questions and answers from a predominantly knowledgeable, young audience. This wonderfully takes us into the mind of the Maestro. One young woman praises Hitch for his sense of humour and wants to know when he is going to leave suspense for comedy. His reply is unequivocal: All my movies are comedies (as well as suspense). Notice how throughout the interview he frequently smiles. But he never laughs. This is his way of getting his own interior into ours. The core of the Hitchcock art. Click here for the link. Enjoy. Over to you Sir Alfred:

Jack Buckley

For more about the remaining tour dates for The Lady Vanishes click here.

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