It’s a rare opportunity that I get to go to the theatre knowing very little about the show I’m going to see. I knew that this was an adaptation of a Hitchcock thriller and that it was a play. That was it.
I’ve never seen the film and so decided that I wouldn’t do my usual pre-show research, but instead watch the show with no expectations. My only apprehension was whether a straight play could fill the large space that is the Grand Theatre, a space more used to presenting musicals and operas.
In case you would still rather know something about the play first, then here is the background for you. ‘The Lady Vanishes‘ is a 1938 British mystery thriller film directed by the great Alfred Hitchcock, one of his earlier films before being lured over to Hollywood. Based on the 1936 novel ‘The Wheel Spins’ by Ethel Lina White, the story is about a beautiful young tourist who is travelling back to England to get married. When she discovers that an elderly lady who she had befriended on the train suddenly disappears, the other passengers deny having ever seen her. She becomes gradually more distressed and realises that she may be involved in the political discourse surrounding the growing Nazi party.
The stage adaptation of this story has been created by Bill Kenwright’s The Classic Thriller Theatre Company and is described as a quick-witted, devilishly fun thriller…
Unfortunately, for me the play never quite lived up to this description and my apprehension around The Grand being too large for this production was realised immediately, as the sound was so poor in the very first scene that I missed most of the dialogue, including key information that set the story and characters. The whole audience was physically leaning forward to try to hear. I was only 9 rows from the front, so I dread to think how those further back coped. The pace in the first half was painfully slow and the style was utterly confused; a mixture between drama and pantomime. The sound quality improved as the act progressed, but this was still not adequate, starving the show of energy.
There’s no doubt that there was some talent on the stage. The double act between Charters and Caldicott, performed here by Robert Duncan and Ben Nealon, two quintessentially English, cricket-obsessed friends, stole the show. Their witty rapport and quick one-liners provided some much needed comic relief. And although James Boswell was actually performing as an understudy for the role of Max, his performance was endearing and energised. Some of the other roles were simply over-exaggerated and either didn’t really make sense in terms of the story or seemed more suitable to a Christmas panto.
The second half was definitely an improvement. This was much needed as the atmosphere during the interval was rather awkward; a weird silence filling the auditorium as people didn’t really want to exchange views. The plot thickened in Act Two and the pace accelerated somewhat. The story continued to have massive holes, however, and the fight scene with the Italian magician was verging on ridiculous . I overheard several audience members discussing how key events were missed from the film, and although I can’t comment on this, the ending definitely left me with a sense of confusion; a mystery of the kind I’m sure wasn’t intended.
It’s always sad to leave a theatre having not enjoyed a show and I do always try to emphasise the positive in what I’ve seen. Hopefully, the sound issues will improve in later shows – I did spot a few audience members leaving during the first scene and so I assume their complaints led to the increase in volume, which was greatly appreciated. However, the confusing script and even more confusing sense of style isn’t going to improve. This is a train journey I won’t be taking again.
Editor’s Note: Obviously not up Maria’s street, this one, but if you want to experience one of Bill Kenwright’s productions, call the box office on 0844 848 2700 or visit www.leedsgrandtheatre.com
Photographs by Paul Coltas, provided by Leeds Grand Theatre.