There were several moments during the opening night of thriller North By Northwest when the audience erupted into spontaneous laughter. Not just amused chuckles of appreciation at a snappy Mad Men-style one liner (although there are plenty of them), nor chortles of delight on recognising a reference to the original classic movie, directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1959. And not even nervy hysterical laughter as a bubble of high tension is relieved by a comic pin prick.
No, this was full-on, spontaneous belly laughs that delivered a solid tick of approval for this cleverly delivered production.
Tackling a classic movie and adapting it for stage is challenging enough but when it’s one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best-loved film noirs and most of the audience is familiar with the plot, the phrase “big boots to fill” barely covers it.
The Melbourne Theatre Company took up the gauntlet and ran with it last year, winning many fans. Now the stage show is back for another two-week run (why so short?), in a collaboration between Arts Centre Melbourne and Kay & McLean Productions.
It’s a very cosy, comfortable production, for all that it deals with mistaken identity, abduction, attempted murder, gun-toting baddies and mysterious double agents chasing our suave hero from New York to Mount Rushmore – plus of course a treacherous femme fatale. Somehow it’s heartening to be swept along in the classic film noir format that reassures with familiarity alongside frisson, and in hindsight Hitchcock’s use of droll humour in NxNW probably paved the way for the later style of the Bond movies.
Rather than try to embellish an already successful plot, director Simon Phillips and stage adapter Carolyn Burns have instead focussed on the means of delivery to create new interest. Clever projections from two green screens on either side of the stage provide a range of effects, from close-up detail shots to moving trains and buses, and the iconic crop-duster plane scene.
For the most part it’s cleverly entertaining, if at times borderline silly, and the trickery is presented so transparently that it draws the audience in as co-conspirators. The crash and burn cropduster saw the concept teetering on the edge of farce but it somehow managed to recover its balance.
It is the representations of Mount Rushmore that present the method at its peak – and which rightfully win the belly laughs.
Matt Day (Rake, Muriel’s Wedding) offers a solid delivery in his role of advertising exec Roger Thornhill, opposite Amber McMahon as a slightly charicatured version of femme Eve Kendall, who seems torn between being a ‘50s victim and an assertive 21-century woman.
Only two or three cast members have changed since the 2015 version, and one is the introduction of Gina Riley as Thornhill’s bridge-loving mother. But while Riley’s voice can be picked out in sundry characters, her comic talents went largely unused. Tony Llewellyn-Jones has slightly more chance to shine as The Professor, while Matt Hetherington and Nicholas Bell both do villain well.
However it is when all 12 cast members come together that they truly shine. Between them they play a wide range of characters, filling in details as news reporters, cops, taxi drivers, tannoy announcers, train, plane and hotel staff as the fast-paced production rattles along. They also serve to move various set pieces around, transforming a coach to a car to a cab and making mountains out of tables; all would have easily hit a 10,000-step fitness target by closing call.
Whether you’ve seen the movie a dozen times or have never heard of Hitchcock, this is a slick, atmospheric production that tells a ripping yarn extremely well and is guaranteed to entertain.
Kay + McLean Productions presents
North by Northwest
adapted by Carolyn Burns
Directed by Simon Phillips
Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: 29 January – 13 February 2016
Tickets: from $89
Bookings: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au | 1300 182 183
Originally produced in association with Melbourne Theatre Company