North by Northwest (QPAC) – theatre review

While it’s more common for theatre to be adapted into movies, some have gone the other way. They’re mostly however musicals (a la School of Rock: The Musical) or drawing room dramas. Certainly, the thought of staging a big action movie seems daunting. But the creative team behind North by Northwest have pulled off that improbable task.

Photo: Darren Thomas

Director Simon Phillips and writer Carolyn Burns have condensed Alfred Hitchcock’s sprawling Cold War thriller for the stage. They’ve even managed to retain the famous crop duster and Mt Rushmore sequences with some inventive technical fixes. An ingenious set design skillfully re-creates houses, hotel rooms, train carriages and forests in an instant. QPAC assisted in devising many of the technical elements for the show’s 2017 run in Melbourne.

At the heart of the story is Roger Thornhill (Matt Day), a slick Madison Avenue advertising executive. A seemingly innocuous mix-up sees him mistaken for a George Kaplan. Seems some very bad guys are targetting Kaplan. Soon, Thornhill is on the run from not just the bad guys, but the cops as well. He happens into the path of Eve Kendall (Amber McMahon), a Hitchcock blonde if ever there was one. She seems, well, sympathetic to Roger’s dilemma. But could she have other motives?

This version of North by Northwest from producers Andrew Kay and Liza McLean ticks many of the right boxes. Fans of the film will be familiar with the story; and this hits all the beats. If you don’t know the film, don’t worry. The breakneck pacing and engaging plot will soon draw you in.

Slick is probably the best word to describe it. Occasionally however, the play seems to be enamoured with its own cleverness. Also, some of the technical aspects (most of which play out in full view of the audience) lend a layer of comedy not associated with the film. And while that’s fine in context, it does drain some of the tension from the plot.

Photo: Darren Thomas

Matt Day and Amber McMahon have huge shoes to fill in the roles originally played by screen legends Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. But they make both characters entirely believable, with McMahon even adding a little more sass and swagger to her role. Their American accents are impeccable. Robert Menzies as the shady Professor, Jonny Pasvolsky as the equally shady Vandamm and Abigail McKern as Thornhill’s ditzy mother round out the principal cast. Thirteen actors appear during the production, many filling multiple roles.

North by Northwest is a thoroughly enjoyable evening at the theatre. If you’re used to going to the movies but not the theatre, this will be perfect for you. But even hardened fans of the stage can embrace this fast-paced and hugely inventive thriller.

North by Northwest is playing at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane until 9 December 2018.

David Edwards

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