Adapted by Andrew Taylor from the screenplay of the Hitchcock film by Launder and Gilliat, which was based on the novel “The Wheel Spins” by Ethel Lina White
Directed by Mark Sterling
Company: Jill Freud and Company
Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Date: Tuesday 9th September 2008
The set for this was absolutely amazing. The first scenes take place in the small hotel, and we see, from the left, a door, two tiny bedrooms with the beds being more like chairs, both on a diagonal, then a wall with a shuttered window, and on the right the hotel reception desk with a telephone. The backdrop is jagged mountains. For the train, the cast move the bedrooms and window section round, and in a few moments we have the interior of a train. Another section was brought on to the left, and the whole contraption was fastened together, so that the train could be moved right or left as needed to keep the action as central as possible. For the final scene, the train parts were turned around so that we could see Iris and Gilbert arriving at Victoria, but I’ll get on to that bit later.
With a small touring company, the parts had to be rationed, so Iris, the Margaret Lockwood part from the film, only had one friend with her in the eastern alps. The lawyer who’s hoping to become a judge, and his mistress were also absent, but Charters and Caldicott were definitely present (do I hear cheering?). They brought all the usual humour with them, from the opening scene when the hotel manager gets round to speaking in English last, so the only room left for them is the maid’s, through the telephone call from London, to the absolutely ridiculous request Miss Froy makes for the sugar. I have to confess that these two characters are a bit like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for me – I can never remember which is which – but one of them takes the gun at the end, while the other helps drive the train back to safety. The nuns on the train were a bit confusing at first, but I got the hang of them eventually, and the story rattled along at a good pace.
The effects were naturally limited too, but effective. The lights went out when the train went through tunnels, there was steam wafting around the place from time to time, and the scene in the luggage car, with the magician escaping from his false-bottomed trunk, was pretty spectacular. I was quite relieved that they didn’t try to jiggle about to demonstrate that the train was actually moving; I’d probably have been sick after a short time of that, and I’m quite happy to engage my imagination for something like this.
Some minor plot changes were necessary. Iris gets her bash on the head when the porter carrying luggage to the train comes through the hotel door just as she’s picking up a bag on the other side. And the turning point for Gilbert came when the steward carried a bucket of rubbish through the train with the herbal tea packet prominently displayed on top. Other than this, the story seemed much as I remembered it from the film, though we didn’t get to see the folk dancing.
Penelope Rawlins as Iris was good as a discontented rich girl heading back to London for a marriage she felt was necessary but not desirable. Jill Freud played Miss Froy, and despite having quite shrewd eyes, managed to convince her fellow travellers that she was a dotty old lady who rambled on about nothing very much. Paul Leonard as Gilbert was older than I expected, and although he had the right sort of amiable and quirky personality, I didn’t quite buy the attraction between him and Iris, not in terms of ditching the marriage plans, anyway. Clive Flint and Jonathan Jones did Charters and Caldicott to perfection – makes you proud to be British – and the rest of the cast, which included three acting ASMs, provided us with a large range of other characters very effectively.
The final scene in this version has Gilbert and Iris arriving back at Victoria, and Iris deciding she doesn’t want to marry the other chap. Gilbert is so happy he forgets the tune that Miss Froy asked him to memorise. Just then, a whole group of nuns turn up, Miss Froy among them, humming the very tune. They recognise her, and it’s happy reunion time. End of play. I had a good sob, of course, which made the evening all the more enjoyable. I don’t know how people would find this if they hadn’t seen the movie, but as it’s one of my all time favourites, I really lapped this up. Although not as jokey as the stage version of The 39 Steps, this has always been one of Hitchcock’s funniest movies, and I think that helped it translate to the stage so well.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me