Alfred Hitchcock was forever in the pursuit of pure cinema, so it’s interesting to ponder what the master would have made of his films being turned into theatrical enterprises.

Carolyn Burns’ theatrical adaptation keeps the sparkling dialogue of Ernest Lehman’s original screenplay but her structure cannot match the film’s editing by George Tomasini. Both Lehman and Tomasini were Oscar nominated for their work on the film. Toamsini was gazumped by Ben Hur and Lehman by Pillow Talk, which, ironically, is more akin to this incarnation of North by Northwest, an enthralling thriller pared down to a rom-com. 

Suspense and surprise go south in North by Northwest, substituted with cheesy cheer east of Edam.

David Campbell challenges channelling Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill, the Madison Ave maven mistakenly identified as George Kaplan, a man who never was. As his nemesis, Vandamm, Bert Labonté more successfully channels James Mason, capturing the urbane charm and wit and the whiff of the melancholy and sympathetic villain.

Amber McMahon is suitable sexy and seductive as Eve, the tempting honey pot in the unenviable situation of a woman coerced into living with a spy in order to spy on him.

Bernard Herrmann’s original film score is a comforting cloak to the dulled dagger of the piece.

Blithe comedy rather than taut thriller is the choice made by Burns and the director, Simon Phillips, reverting to playful pantomime in key set pieces. The crop duster attack is gleefully performed by naked naivety, like kids playing at war, and after sitting through most of North by Northwest stony faced, I did crack a smile at the Mount Rushmore staging using projected images of actors’ faces as they mug from the wings.

Staged rather like a musical with broad stroke character ensemble work, it reminds one of a famous Hitchcock quote about actors: “They are cattle”. With that in mind, North by Northwest has its moments of prime beef, augmented by prime ham, but cannot build on the perfection of its source material.

Event details

North by Northwest
adapted by Carolyn Burns

Director Simon Phillips

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre | 55 Pirrama Road, Pyrmont NSW
Dates: 9 March – 3 April 2022
Bookings: www.northbynorthwesttheplay.com

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