Lyric Theatre, QPAC
November 29, 2018
Often listed among the greatest films of all time, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 spy thriller North by Northwest is given a new life on the stage, telling the tale of mystery and mistaken identity through a blend of traditional theatre, audiovisual elements, and physical comedy.
Adapted by playwright Carolyn Burns and directed by Simon Phillips, the production sold out seasons in the United Kingdom and Canada in addition to its successful Melbourne seasons in 2015 and 2016. Now the adaptation of Hitchcock’s beloved film, originally produced by Kay + McLean Productions in association with Melbourne Theatre Company and by special arrangement with Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, makes its Queensland debut on the QPAC stage.
Matt Day in North by Northwest. Photo © Darren Thomas
Successful Madison Avenue advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill is on his way to the theatre in New York when he is abducted by thugs who insist he is a man named George Kaplan. What follows is a thrilling chase from New York City to Chicago to South Dakota, as Thornhill tries desperately to clear his name and becomes entangled with espionage, federal agents, and a mysterious and beautiful woman.
The play was unexpectedly funny, and while all the spy thriller tropes were there – car chases, gunplay, a love affair with a beautiful blonde – the unique staging added an element of comedy to the dramatic storyline of mystery and murder. These techniques took audiences ‘behind the scenes’ of the filmic special effects and gave regular nods to the differences in medium between film and play, including a cleverly devised ‘opening credits’ scene. The inclusion of a Hitchcock lookalike in a ‘cameo’ early in the piece was also a nice touch. In the same vein, some of the lines took on new meaning presented as a play, like Vandamm’s assertion to Thornhill, who he believes to be George Kaplan, that “with such expert playacting, you make this very room a theatre”.
Matt Day, Amber McMahon and Jonny Pasvolski in North by Northwest. Photo © Darren Thomas
Reprising their leading roles from the Melbourne season, Matt Day and Amber McMahon played suave, self-assured Roger O. Thornhill and forward femme fatale Eve Kendall respectively and built fantastic tension between their characters. Jonny Pasvolsky was a nuanced villain as cold and businesslike Vandamm, and the other nine actors in the cast – including Queensland talents Christen O’Leary and Leon Cain – played over thirty varied roles throughout the production. Their natural and well-directed interactions in the background added depth to the scenes without ever distracting from the main action. Although the fight choreography of Act I felt forced, the physical comedy of the chase scenes was well-paced with great comedic timing. The American accents were also consistent, which was especially impressive for those actors playing multiple roles with different accents.
Making the leap from film to stage is no small feat, and this work pushes boundaries of stagecraft with interactions between actors and miniatures and the use of audio visual equipment to convey parts of the narrative and create settings. Each scene, including the iconic cliffhanger at Mount Rushmore, is recreated onstage and the precision with which the actors moved, placed, caught, and managed props and set pieces was impressive. If any single thing had been out of place things could have fallen apart quickly but sets and scenes were changed seamlessly.
Peter Houghton, Matt Day, Tom Davey and Ezra Bix in North by Northwest. Photo © Darren Thomas
Ian McDonald’s composition was an unexpected highlight, and the most interesting use of sound design as a storytelling element that I can recall seeing onstage. Despite a few minor issues with microphone volume, the sound was a vital component of the onstage drama and action, from subtle background music in the train’s dining car to the overwhelming whirr of plane engines and snippets from the original film score composed by Bernard Herrmann. McDonald’s work zoomed audience attention in and out on the action, complemented by Nick Schlieper’s lighting design. Dramatic spotlights shifted focus across the stage and were also used to convey the passing of information, and lighting combined with the sound design to create rushing traffic and daring escapes.
North by Northwest is exciting, fast-paced, and laugh out loud funny; the thrilling combination of drama, action, and romance makes for a fun night at the theatre and the dynamic cast and staging will keep you captivated from beginning to end.
North by Northwest is at QPAC’s Lyric Theatre until December 9, then Adelaide Festival Theatre from December 29, 2018 – January 13, 2019