An adaptation from film to stage is a challenge in its own right, but how could anyone recreate North by Northwest, the beloved Hitchcock classic with almost 3000 kilometres covered in its 2 hours?
Spanning from the streets of 50s New York to the UN headquarters and all the way up to Mount Rushmore’s famous foreheads, Carolyn Burns and Simon Phillips tackle every challenge the film presents. Marvellously designed and tightly plotted, the production unfortunately suffers from a tension between genres.
North by Northwest tells the story of Roger O. Thornhill (Matt Day), an advertising executive mistaken for an international spy named George Kaplan. Kidnapped, framed for drunk driving and murder, Thornhill is chased relentlessly by Phillip Vandamm (Matt Hetherington) and the authorities. Along the way he meets ‘double double agent’ Eve Kendall played by Amber McMahon, who clearly enjoys hamming up the sultry role originally performed by Eva Marie Saint.
Released in 1959, the original film paralleled the Cold War climate of the 50s and 60s. In an interview, Burns said she saw the ‘political backbone’ of the original film and felt that its concerns with duplicity and false identities reflect our own issues with privacy and government surveillance.
The script sticks closely to Ernest Lehman’s original, but the performers each give their own spin on the characters. As Thornhill, Day nails the accent and the smooth talking, wise guy performance Cary Grant originally personified. As a physical actor however, he lags behind his co-stars. In one of the film’s iconic scenes, Thornhill waits by the side of the road for the ‘real’ George Kaplan, yet instead a crop-duster makes his acquaintance and tries to gun him down. While this scene in the production is weakened by a silly toy plane and crops on a backdrop that fail to convince, Day doesn’t bring much physical immediacy to the role; he lightly drops to the ground and jogs back and forth while the plane flies overhead. This scene—capping off the first half—was more like an unenthused kid playing make-believe in his back yard.
The supporting cast perform admirably. Comic superstar Gina Riley (Kath and Kim, The Beautiful Lie) is a blast in the role of Thornhill’s exhaustingly clueless mother. Tony Llewellynn-Jones also gives an energetic performance as the agent aiding Thornhill. The large cast enacted several roles to fill up populated scenes and these sometimes played like comedy skits surrounding the central plot of intrigue. Despite occasionally conflicting with the more straight theatre scenes, these comedic asides allowed the play to step out of its source material’s looming shadow.
Far and away the stand out aspect of North by Northwest was Nick Schlieper’s production and set design. Cold, bare lighting befit the aesthetic of government building interiors, streets bustled with chatter and every scene change was swift. Car interiors were simple and effective—furniture was pushed around on wheels while the screen in the back would switch with the movements. The final chase scene was effectively realised with tables and chairs and a multimedia presentation of the Rushmore heads, played by three of the actors.
Collaborating frequently with Bernard Hermann, Hitchcock’s films were complimented perfectly by their scores. Ian McDonald on this production achieves the right tone of excitement while emphasising the twists and turns. His thrilling scores buoyed the scenes that dragged.
With North by Northwest, Burns and Phillips have successfully paid homage to Hitchcock’s saturated style. The play is visually stunning, easy to follow and engrossing as a spy thriller, though there is an uncomfortable tension between two styles: attempts to be self-aware—including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo of Hitchcock and special effects parodied with toy models—often didn’t mesh well with the long scenes of exposition conveying the twisty plot. It’s as if the creators could have gone one way or the other with a self-aware parody or a faithful, straight stage play, yet ended up remaining somewhere in between. Despite this, the production is an immensely entertaining way to spend an evening, sure to delight Hitchcock fans while introducing others to his work.