North by Northwest

Staged at Adelaide Festival Theatre, 4 January 2019 (Directed by Simon Phillips)

(1959 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock)

Everybody knows the story: Manhattan Ad-man Roger O. Thornhill is mistaken for a (non-existent) government agent, kidnapped, framed and chased across the country by Cold War heavies. Hitchcock’s romantic thriller is a classic, featuring legendary scenes such as the interlude on the train to Chicago between Thornhill (Cary Grant) and Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), the attack on Thornhill by a crop-duster, and the chase over the Mount Rushmore monument. And besides Grant and Saint, there were James Mason as a suave villain, Martin Landau as his lethal secretary, Jessie Royce Landis as Roger’s doubting Mum, and Leo G. Carroll as the Intelligence Chief.

Even with the magic of film, this big production created difficulties and blew-out the budget. Although the Director was one of the greatest handlers of film that ever lived, there were a number of hurdles and exigencies. For example, the authorities banned Hitchcock from filming any scenes on the monument, after some locals grumbled. But Hitch had MGM studios as a backdrop where he could fabricate outdoor locations, and he also had real New York and Chicago locations to boot. It made for a lush, grand, suspenseful adventure in the old style, reminiscent of The Master’s films The Thirty-Nine Steps, Notorious and To Catch a Thief, and it was one of his biggest successes.

Cue the Kay + McLean Production of North by Northwest on stage at Adelaide, a play of the film (reversing the norm) adapted by Carolyn Burns, directed by Simon Phillips. If one is familiar with the film, and we are confident most of the large audience last night were, the challenges of a stage version seem daunting, not only due to the large number of scenes, the dizzying pace, and technical problems with sets, but also the memory of the film’s lead’s charismatic quality. TVC is relieved and pleased to say that these challenges were well-met indeed. From the homage to Saul Bass’s titles, presented in semaphore by the entire cast at the start, to the cliffhanging finale, it was clear that the players were going to have fun with it, and eventually they carried-along even the staunchest of curmudgeons in the crowd.

Of the cast, we have to shout a well-done for the sheer energy, poise and technical skill displayed. Apart from Matt Day as Thornhill and Amber McMahon as Eve, and the key villain Philip Vandaam (Jonny Pasvolsky), in the main the others had to take on a staggering raft of walk-ons and offs, bearing with them the infrastructure for the frequent scene changes. We can’t recall such frenzied stage kinetics since The Last Confession, and this was even faster. The roles were all done well – we had concerns with Day in the first half, who seemed tentative and ill-at-ease, but this may well have been deliberate playing, an everyman out of his depth – he was more assured and satisfying after interval. McMahon and Pasvolsky were splendid as were Tom Davey (the oily Leonard), and Nicholas Bell, playing almost everyone else. But, really, the whole cast was terrific.

Ernest Lehman’s original script is hardly changed – some extraneous touches here, some superfluous exposition here, but the additions didn’t detract and the subtractions didn’t matter. Bernard Herrmann’s glorious score is retained, and some scenes from the film serve as useful prop devices. There is no way you can render the story realistically on stage, so the producers made a virtue of necessity and revealed the normally hidden machinery. And what ingenious and amusing machinery it was, often simple, sometimes breathtaking, a featured player in itself! The scenes involving planes, trains and automobiles were inspired, along with the various dramatic spaces, exits and entrances. The famous crop-dusting episode, with its conflagration, was both hilarious and sensational. But whoever dreamed-up the theatrical solution to the various problems in staging the Mount Rushmore scenes deserves a Tony, an Olivier and a Helpmann Award for that alone.

All in all, this was great fun, a worthy proof of live theatre, and made a most entertaining evening. Mr. Hitchcock would have been impressed.

Thankfully, they didn’t miss the bus with this one

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