THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
North By Northwest
Theatre Royal Bath
Directed and adapted for the stage by Simon Phillips, from the screenplay by Ernest Lehman
Reviewed by Michael Burland
Information & Tickets
So, you're a theater director, and you've decided to create a stage production of a Hitchcock thriller. Good idea – plenty of goodwill, name awareness, snappy dialog and a fast-moving plot. But which one? The Birds and The 39 Steps have been done, and Rope and Dial M for Murder were plays before they were filmed. Maybe Rear Window, or Frenzy? Set in confined spaces with small casts. Ideal. Except that's not how director and dramaturge Simon Phillips thinks. He chose North By Northwest, Hitchcock's most epic movie, with sweeping vistas, huge buildings and spectacular action sequences.
Easy, just back-project some CGI... except then the audience would think they're watching a movie, with some token live actors thrown onto the stage. Phillips' solution is to stage the whole thing live, with the effects created by the actors in front of small cameras in little 'booths' offstage, complete with [spoiler alert!] spinning newspaper headlines, a mountain, a drunkenly driven sports car, a cropduster airplane which explodes into a gas tanker and a fight sequence clambering across the Presidential visages of Mount Rushmore. Models, what models!? The results, projected onto the clever modular grid set by Phillips and lighting designer Nick Schlieper, received many laughs, much applause and even a credit in the curtain call.
All of which would be a novelty if the human element wasn't up to scratch. Luckily Canadian Jonathan Watton's Roger O. Thornhill is a delight, not a Cary Grant impersonation but with all his suavity, much of his wit, and added youth. He's believable as the ad man thrown into jeopardy when he's mistaken for a spy by an evil gang and goes on the run. The sparks fly as Olivia Fines gives his female foil Eve Kendall a modern sexy sassiness – a worthy cool Hitchcock blonde.
Abigail McKern is a joy as Thornhill's bridge-playing mother and Gerald Kyd is a dangerously smooth Vandamm. The company of twelve play a 'cast of thousands' brilliantly- it's amazing what a wig, an accent and a change of gait can achieve in the hands of a talented actor (they even have their own Alfred Hitchcock cameo) – and the action flies along swiftly. If some of The Master's suspense is lost, they more than make up for it with a warmth and humor. I've seldom seen a happier audience after a finale; some hadn't seen the film, most had, all seemed to have enjoyed the show equally.
The music cleverly uses much of Bernard Herrmann's brilliant film score, which works well with the surround-sound design by Poti Martin.
After a world premiere in Australia, the Bath run will be North By Northwest's only UK performances - at least that's what they're saying for now. This stylish, fast-paced, funny show deserves a return for a West End transfer or a UK tour.