One of the most creative and engaging plays I have had the good fortune to see, the moment it finished I wanted to see it again. What better recommendation is there? Put succinctly, North by Northwest is a beauty. So was the Alfred Hitchcock-directed movie, mind you, so the issue became how best to translate it to the stage.
It was originally a collaborative effort between MTC, Kay + McLean Productions and Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures. The Queensland Performing Arts Centre also provided some early technical nous. Following a sold out season last year, Arts Centre Melbourne and Kay + McLean Productions have brought it back for a strictly limited two-week run and thank goodness for that. Every twist and thrill and narrow escape has been re-engineered in this suspense comedy set during the Cold War … and it’s heaps of fun.
The adaptation has been orchestrated so adeptly by director Simon Phillips and writer Carolyn Burns.
Taking the pivotal role of a man caught unaware that fights back is Matt Day (Muriel’s Wedding, Spooks, Rake). For all intents and purposes, he is your modern day Cary Grant. He plays the character Roger O. Thornhill, a suave and successful advertising executive, abducted by thugs who insist he is a man called George Kaplan. There’s obviously been a mix up. When they don’t believe him, that’s infuriating. When they try to kill him, that’s frightening. And when they pin a murder on him, that becomes the time to run! From New York to North Dakota, Thornhill is chased by spies, Feds, crop-dusting planes and the inevitable cool blonde. Only in this case, the blonde is Amber McMahon (MTC’s The Season at Sarsaparilla, TV’s The Chaser and The Hamster Wheel), not Eva Marie Saint.
Before James Bond movies became, arguably, the most successful franchise ever, Ernest Lehman wrote the highly successful screenplay for North by Northwest, a lightning paced thriller that mixed glamour with espionage.
The best thing about the play is its staging. Technically it is brilliant. The central stage area is bare, prison-like, save for the regular intervention of props. To each side performers use hand-held objects such as painted boards, a plane, doll’s house toys and even their own heads (I kid you not) to illuminate backdrops to the action that takes place through old-fashioned projection. This brings the script to life in a unique and often richly funny manner. Peels of laughter can regularly be heard among an appreciative audience.
Those who have seen the film will, no doubt, recall the action atop Mount Rushmore. What Phillips has done with that in two scenes alone is worth the price of admission. Just marvellous.
The 12-strong cast that includes Nicholas Bell, Matt Hetherington, Tony Llewellyn-Jones and Gina Riley fill multiple roles. The action is fast and furious and the result is an enormous crowd-pleasing triumph for all concerned. That includes those behind the scenes who are often overlooked, such as the lighting, audiovisual and sound designers, not to forget the model makers.
As I said at the outset, North by Northwest is up there with the most enjoyable plays I have seen in more than 30 years of attending productions and reviewing them. Enough said. Now go and buy your tickets, before you miss out. North by Northwest is on at the State Theatre at the Victorian Arts Centre until 13th February.
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television