Review: "The Lady Vanishes" at the Leeds Grand Theatre

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  • Adam Bruce, United Kingdom Critic

In recent years, Bill Kenwright has been prolific in producing several successful stage adaptations of classic films, giving audiences new opportunities to experience them in a live setting and collectively share the experience. In the company’s recent venture, under the banner of The Classic Thriller Theatre Company, Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Lady Vanishes’ has received an adaptation from screen to stage.

Set during the reign of the Nazi Party, ‘The Lady Vanishes’ brings us aboard a train departing Germany. A wealthy young lady, Iris (Lorna Fitzgerald) meets Miss Froy (Juliet Mills) after receiving a blow to the head following an accident in the train station. After making friends with her and taking a nap, Iris awakens to find that Miss Froy has disappeared, and none of the other passengers can remember her. Determined she isn’t losing her marbles, Iris begins the search for Miss Froy, only to uncover a sinister plot full of twists and turns.

There can be real creative joy and an exciting sense of artistic discovery when adapting a piece of film for the stage. We only have to look back at Kneehigh Theatre’s adaptation of ‘Brief Encounter’ to see how incredible adaptations of this kind can be. As a performance medium, theatre can create much more atmosphere and intensify the emotional experiences of the audience, whose shared viewing of the piece can shed new light on its underlying artistic endeavours and breathe new life into the source material. In this adaptation of ‘The Lady Vanishes’, however, I must sadly admit that I felt this mark was missed multiple times.

I feel that most of the underlying issues with this adaptation stem from Roy Marsden’s directorial vision for the piece. Instead of an atmospheric journey through a narrative that rocketed Hitchcock to Hollywood, where an interrogation of the encroaching confines of the compact train carriage could have harvested plenty of artistic meaning from the piece, we’re left with a flat end-on delivery that pales in comparison. Marsden takes the bare bones of the narrative and places them in a setting we’ve seen time and time again, placing the performers into a situation where they simply have to do the best they can in an uninspired setting that leaves the audience feeling disconnected and unengaged for the majority of the evening. 

While the performers do go on to convey some excellent characterisations and uphold the text, there never quite seems to be a sense of suspenseful urgency, even in moments where we see sword fights and shootouts; there’s never a sense of the stakes being raised or the performances developing. It feels like things have simply been done for the sake of it. For instance, in a moment where we might have seen some atmosphere being generated by a busker with an accordion in the train station, we see the actor miming along to a recording and nobody engaging with it. This is a trend throughout the production, and actions feel stunted by the piece’s overarching goal of getting to the denouement, wrapping things up and sending the audience on its way after having them ‘experience’ the adaptation in a live setting. 

Even the scenography appears stunted by this production’s bland journey to the finish; Morgan Large’s set design, while functional and clear in its objective to provide a sense of place and space, fails to truly capture the atmosphere of a confined train carriage where the lingering sense of deception would elevate the tension. As functional as it may be, it only serves as a reminder of Marsden’s vision never quite taking off and trying to reach the lofty heights of excellent film to stage adaptations that breathe new life into the source work and simultaneously open up discussions and provoke a shared sense of discovery from the audience.

This new adaptation of ‘The Lady Vanishes’ isn’t unwatchable by any means, and the cast and creative team do the best they can under the banner of such an uninspired directorial vision. I really do feel there could have been so much more to be done with this adaptation that would have made it gripping and suspenseful, so on this occasion, I left the theatre feeling disappointed by the lack of inspiration and originality. 

‘The Lady Vanishes’ is at the Leeds Grand Theatre until. For more information, tickets and a full cast & creative list visit: https://www.leedsgrandtheatre.com/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loadArticle=Load&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::article_id=4F0B8F7F-184A-4B74-B3E8-425D02E0A88B