North American Premiere: North By Northwest, a staged version of the Hitchcock movie
TORONTO–Directors and film historians Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich have both referred to Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest as a “perfect film.” Who can resist the ad man full of derring do, played by Cary Grant, chased by the bad guys all the way to the top of Mt. Rushmore?
For this reason, and the fact that the 1950s film is a favorite among Hitchcock fans and non-fans alike and enjoys great familiarity and name-recognition, writer Carolyn Burns adapted the original film and story into a stage play along the same lines of The 39 Steps, another Hitchcock film, written by Simon Corble, Nobby Dimon and–in a later adaptation–Patrick Barlow.
North By Northwest, The 39 Steps and shows like Potted Potter (a send-up of the first seven Potter books acted out by two actors) is a genre gaining traction among writers, producers and patrons for being accessible material with plenty of juice for ticket sales.
This world premier, performed at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, has a lot going for it, but it’s not without flaws. Let’s start with the development meeting as I imagine that it took place. “What we want to do is recreate the film North By Northwest on stage, and everyone who comes to see the play will have seen the movie, and they’ll wonder how we are going to do the crop-duster scene and the finale on top of Mt. Rushmore, and we are going to totally wow them when we pull it off.”
Indeed, the set for this play is extremely well conceived. The aluminum grid around the players changes, slides and transforms almost like a Lego set, adapting to whatever the scene calls for. Set designers Simon Phillips (who also directed) and Nick Schlepper also created “side-car” rooms at stage left and stage right with the aluminum framework as see-through walls to provide space to create some of the special effects projected on the huge rear screen, as well as some of the action. The design is used terrifically, for example in the famous auction scene from the movie with the auctioneer in the side room, and the bidders in the main stage area. Here again, the auctioneer is using doll-sized furnishings, with a camera trained on it, to make it look life-size on the screen at the rear of the stage.
The rear screen gets used extremely well throughout, providing a means for the director to show, for example, what is written on a note being read by Eve Kendall (Olivia Fines), as well as a projection of Mt. Rushmore and the crop-duster plane.
The plot for those who have not scene the film is as follows: Suave Madison Avenue exec Roger O. Thornhill is mistaken for a government agent named George Kaplan while lunching at The Plaza. A couple of thugs hustle him to a mansion in Long Island. From there, Thornhill is on the run after being accused of murdering a United Nations official who was actually killed by one of the thugs. Along the way, he meets up with Eve Kendall with whom he has a train-board affair. She, it turns out, is actually tied up with the bad guys, or is she?
It is a familiar genre. In fact, The 39 Steps film is a lot like North By Northwest and other Hitchcock classics like Frenzy and Saboteur, as well as modern movies like The Fugitive and Enemy of The State. Mistaken identity is a recurring theme in these films, and is a useful plot device dating back to Shakespeare.
With The 39 Steps, the creators of that stage experience sought to transcend the script itself and create an at-times frenetic pace of artistic imaginative stage activity with two players, billed as Clown 1 and Clown 2, who play a myriad of characters, sometimes changing characters multiple times in 30 seconds. When done right, it is a tour de force of comedic and physical comedy. If there is a slight flaw in North By Northwest, it might be that the script doesn’t have enough fun poking some fun at the film and plot itself.
While North by Northwest stays close to the actual film script, the feats of creativity on stage are not to be dismissed at all. When you see players on stage moving a small plane on a wire, and see that there is a camera on it, and that is the plane you see on the rear-screen, it is very funny. When four members of the ensemble position their heads in such a way to depict the presidents on Mr. Rushmore projected on the screen, it’s a howl. The depiction of the famous finale on Mr. Rushmore is delicious in its simplicity and cleverness.
Jonathan Watton does a creditable job as Thornhill. He is suave and athletic. He’s no Cary Grant, but who is? And while I commend him for not mimicking Grant’s unique accent and voice pattern, he does seem to have a drift in his accent between no accent and another that its hard to pin down. Olivia Fines as Eve Kendall plays her role much closer to Eva Marie Saint in the film than Watton does with Cary Grant. She even seems to have even studied some of Saint’s vocal cadences on the lines from the film.
I’ll say the same thing about this play that I said about The 39 Steps. In both cases, the play holds up as wonderful theater experience whether or not you have seen the films. But it is probably ten times as funny if you have, especially if you are a Hitchcock aficionado who has seen the movies dozens of times…as I have.