Amongst the suspenseful films directed by Sir Alfred Hitchcock, 1959’s North by Northwest (by screenwriter Ernest Lehman) is distinguished by some humorous moments. This element is heightened in Carolyn Burns’ stage adaptation, one that creates its own intrigues through the use of filmic techniques. Following a sell-out season in 2015, Melbourne audiences are fortunate to have another chance to see it.
Certainly they are more fortunate than Roger O. Thornhill (Matt Day), a successful Madison Avenue advertising man. Mistaken identity draws him into the world of espionage. Following interrogation and a barely-escaped `death by natural causes’, no one believes his explanation of events.
Thornhill is framed by shadowy foes as he tries to clear his name. With his face in the newspapers, he needs to get out of town before the thugs and police close in. He meets Eve Kendall (Amber McMahon), a self-possessed blonde keen to help him use the snippets he’s learned to find out what’s really going on.
Of course, with Hitchcock nothing is straightforward; twists and turns build the suspense as we wonder (if it’s a while since we’ve seen the film) where loyalties really lie. The piece often approaches the tension of its source through the performances, especially those of the two principals.
McMahon convincingly handles the changes in Kendall’s confident façade as she goes from wielding power to feeling it dissolve. Day makes a believable fugitive, taking his Thornhill from a man irritated at the disruption of his life to one desperate to survive and resolved to find out what’s happening. His matter-of-fact manner at times gives some droll comedic moments reminiscent of the original.
A hard-working ensemble race between a variety of costumes and supporting roles. While the players were hard to distinguish at times, I enjoyed a suitably blasé, Blofeld-like villain Van Damme (Matt Hetherington) and the ratcheting suspicion of his henchman Leonard. As Roger’s mother, Gina Riley’s lack of comprehension of her son’s situation adds an element of the absurd and an impetus to the chase.
This North by Northwest heads in the direction of some enjoyable novelty — the cast are hands-on with many of its special effects. Side-of-stage booths allow the actors to move models that are projected as scenery, or be the scenery.
I also got a kick out of seeing how this technically sophisticated production was dynamically assembled and remodelled. A sofa transformed into a speeding car and the precise movements of the cast impel sparse panels to morph into walls and elevators.
Under the direction of Simon Phillips, the piece created some taut sequences. This was assisted greatly by the incidental music composed by Ian McDonald; we could almost feel Thornhill’s brain squirming as he processed some new incident or revelation as a scene concluded.
However, a thriller is supposed to sustain tension, and this was punctured by the odd curious moment. Some made characters figures of fun, diminishing their gravitas, and for only minor amusement. A conclusion in which some supporting roles were played in a goofy way undermined the dramatic climax.
I admit to being distracted by such slackening of the tension, and ultimately unconvinced by its value. I think I would have preferred the production to either go all out for laughs or maintain a suspenseful route, rather than being an ill-fitting mix of both at times.
Minor distractions aside, North by Northwest is an overwhelmingly entertaining take on a classic, delivered through a slick and stylish experience.
North by Northwest
State Theatre – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St. Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Wednesday 3 February 2016
Season continues to 13 February 2016
Bookings: 1300 182 183 or online at: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au
For more information, visit: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au for details.
Image: North by Northwest – photo by Jeff Busby
Review: Jason Whyte