The Lady Vanishes is appearing at the Floral Pavilion this month – and Maxwell Caulfield is trying hard to explain the plot without giving away any of the twists.
“A lot of people haven’t seen the film,” the actor points out, “and I was blurting it out, proudly announcing ‘oh my wife is playing the title role’.
“And then I thought, wait a minute, don’t let that cat out of the bag either!”
Given that there’s more than one female character in the Bill Kenwright-produced show, perhaps it’s easier simply not to say which of them Caulfield’s other half – actress Juliet Mills – is playing and leave it at that.
Chances are of course that many of the audience will be familiar with the story. The Lady Vanishes is a cinematic classic, and in 1938 its success proved a Hollywood calling card for its young director Alfred Hitchcock.
“We’ve taken the screenplay and are effectively replicating it on the stage. It’s accomplished by a lot of rapid-fire set changes that the actors are involved with,” Caulfield says.
Something then perhaps in the same vein as the frenetic 39 Steps?
“You’re not far off the mark,” the actor agrees. “It’s set on the eve of the Second World War, the Nazi threat is just starting to cast its shadow over Europe but the war hasn’t kicked off yet.
Maxwell Caulfield in The Lady Vanishes. Top: Caulfield, Juliet Mills and cast. Photos Paul Coltas
“We’ve got a couple of wonderful eccentric cricket fanatics who are completely oblivious to all the nefarious doings, and all they’re hell bent on is getting to a cricket match up in Manchester. They’re oblivious to the storm trooper marching up and down the train corridor and the mayhem to follow.
“There’s mayhem in the piece and there’s romance. There's great tension - and Bill Kenwright has put a very good company together."
The 59-year-old plays the mysterious Austrian Dr Hartz, and you’ll have to watch the play to see which side of the mayhem he’s on.
It all sounds like good fun however, and Caulfield agrees that’s one of the reasons he and Mills jumped on board – as well as the opportunity to act together on stage.
“Actually, if I have any issues it’s that I DON'T get to act with Juliet, which is a little frustrating,” he says ruefully.
“But the good thing is, first off we actually enjoy trucking around the country together. And Juliet does a great job of finding places for us to stay, so we’re comfortable. We’re not going up to the fifth floor of some rickety old building.
“And life is precious. Every moment you can spend with your life partner is something you treasure.”
Next year the couple will have been together 40 years, making theirs one of the most enduring relationships in the business.
They met when they performed The Elephant Man together in Florida. Derbyshire-born Caulfield, who had moved to the US as a teen, was 21 and Mills, daughter of legendary stage and screen star Sir John Mills, 39.
There was an immediate attraction, and within months they had married.
It’s not John Merrick that Caulfield perhaps remains best known for however, but playboy Miles Colby in glitzy 80s soaps Dynasty and The Colbys, and more recently, tragic millionaire Mark Wylde in the rather less glitzy Emmerdale.
But perhaps his most immersive and challenging work has come on stage, both in the US and the UK where, in recent years, he’s also enjoyed roles in musicals like Chicago, Singin’ in the Rain and Guys and Dolls.
Maxwell Caulfield and Richard Fleeshman outside St George's Hall when Guys and Dolls was at the Liverpool Empire in 2016
It’s four decades since he made his professional debut in Nigel Williams' bleak and shocking Class Enemy, where his performance as the impulsive but doomed strongman Iron won him New York’s Theatre World Award.
Given the burgeoning anniversaries – including a landmark birthday later this year, is he the kind of person who likes to stop and take stock, or simply live for the day?
“There’s some navel-gazing,” he admits. “I’m pretty committed to archiving my career. Really it will just end up being a bunch of newspaper cuttings – I don’t slavishly keep all my interviews and that stuff, but just stills from the show, programme covers, just so I know which towns I hit when.
“So when you are in your dotage you can pat yourself on the back, and it will probably end up in some old touring trunk on top of a skip!
“At the same time, you want to take pride in what you’ve accomplished and by being an actor you do have the validation that comes from having been cast in a show that’s well-received and is remembered.
“That is one of the perks of being an actor, as opposed to somebody who does tireless work with little or no praise, like a registered nurse working her socks off for the NHS.
“My satisfaction is knowing I’ve entertained people, hopefully, and transported them.”
One vehicle which may not have been well-received on its release but has since become a cult hit is Grease 2.
It was an exciting time for Caulfield, not least during the audition process, with the then 21-year-old being flown out from New York – where he was performing in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane – to Los Angeles.
He recalls: “I got flown out on the Sunday, and on Monday was on the Paramount sound stage having to sing a song from the original Grease, All Alone At the Drive In Movie. And do a scene with a couple of actresses that they were also considering at the time for Stephanie Zinone, the role that eventually went to Michelle Pfeiffer.
“The wardrobe department gave me some gear to wear to sing the drive-in movie song.
“I put my hand in my pockets, because the guy is in a moody frame of mind as he’s singing this, and pulled out a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, which I thought was kind of cute. You couldn’t get a more authentic prop than that.”
When he finished the song he opened the cigarette packet – and discovered a note inside penned by John Travolta to Olivia Newton-John.
“It was like a little mash note to her, it was really sweet,” he says. “You got little bits where he’d written it just to sort of be playful. It was really a cute note that Danny was writing to Sandy. And it was in John’s hand.
“I thought,’ oh my God, I’m actually wearing his jacket from the first movie’, which I couldn’t believe was still in the wardrobe department and hadn’t been sold to charity or John had kept for himself.
“It was very much a sign that I felt blessed and that it might go my way.”
So what happened to Travolta’s note? Did he pop it back in the packet, or in his pocket?
“Now you ask!” Caulfield laughs. “I bet you’ve got some things you think, what the hell did I do with that? I can’t be sure (if I took it) but that’s got me thinking, I’m maybe going to ransack that old trunk when I get back home.”
That will have to wait until the end of The Lady Vanishes tour. And what then for the Caulfields of California?
Whatever it is, they plan for it to be a project they can do together.
“What’s really good frankly is that I’m now able to play opposite Juliet in a way that wasn’t in that obvious tea and sympathy casting,” says the actor.
“In fact, Juliet has just walked through the door with something I’ve been waiting for from the postman which is a play I ordered.
“So that is very fortuitous – I’m taking that as a very good sign.”
The Lady Vanishes is at the Floral Pavilion from February 25-March 2. Tickets from the website HERE