It’s what the boys’ magazines of my long lost youth would have called a “ jolly jape”. Put a lot of dysfunctional and largely unlikeable English people on a train in Austria in 1938 and wait for a mystery to develop.
And in true Hitchcock-style – as in his original film of this story – we are faced with a deeply puzzling situation. Gwen Taylor as a sort of tweed-clad Miss Marple makes her mark in the opening scenes , as a slightly dippy but likeable ex-governess who unbelievably speaks 10 languages.
A random group of characters interact with her , but as soon as we get to like her; she vanishes into thin air on a moving train . They all then deny her existence to the puzzled bright young thing Iris , played at full volume as if she were in the Albert Hall by Scarlett Archer, who had first befriended the mysterious Miss Froy.
It becomes clear that Iris – hit on the head rather nonsensically by a pair of skis at the railway station – is probably hallucinating. The plot , such as it is, now twists and turns and we get lots of false clues . But the trouble is we don’t really care about these caricature people – 2 old fashioned English gents who re-enact a cricket match using sugar cubes; a bolshy young engineer who collects folk dances in his spare time; an eminent lawyer with his mistress, fearful of the publicity a divorce would bring. And of course a very nasty Nazi for everyone else to ridicule and hate.
It doesn’t transfer well from celluloid to the stage and much of the action is not shown but spoken about. The scarcely veiled propaganda doesn’t wash with today’s audience and just descends to cheap laughs.
The opening scenic effect of a smoke filled railway station in silhouette is stunning, but the train compartment scenes are cramped and the actors end up playing in a corridor of space.
Scenes alternate between the compartments and the train’s dining car, necessitating the constant moving on and off of tables and chairs. Director Roy Marsden , himself famous as tv’s Insp Dalgliesh, should have found a better solution.
What the show does do is to play into the hands of the Poirot/Marple fan club and as such it will do well.
The Lady Vanishes is at the Theatre Royal, Brighton
Until 9 November as part of a UK tour.