A stylish, entertaining take on Hitchcock’s 1959 vision

David Campbell pictured in the lead role of Roger O Thornhill in the Sydney production of "North by Northwest". Photo: David Boud/supplied.

Review: North by Northwest, Sydney Lyric Theatre, Pyrmont – Wednesday, 16 March, 2022. Reviewed by associate editor and special writer John Moyle.

★★★★

After sellout seasons in Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Bath and Toronto, the theatrical version of Alfred Hitchcock’s acclaimed cinematic masterpiece North by Northwest finally touches down in Sydney for a limited season at the Lyric Theatre.

It’s a tale of mistaken identity, murder and espionage written for film by Ernest Lehman and set at the rise of the Cold War with Russia; the current war in Ukraine reminds us that not much has changed.

This production’s scriptwriter Carolyn Burns has kept much of Lehman’s original fast-paced and witty script for the iconic scenes while deviating for time and pacing in this original and classy production directed by Simon Phillips.

The Sydney production gets off to a cracking start with the appearance of David Campbell as the stylish yet bumbling and self-confessed ‘boring’ Roger O Thornhill, who is quickly thrown into a situation that has he and those around him doubting his own reality.

The Cary Grant role from the film could easily fall apart if it were not played by someone who has an air of debonair and style to match Grant’s – but Campbell pulls this off with ease throughout.

North by Northwest plays the Sydney Lyric Theatre until 3 April, 2022. Video: North By Northwest The Play/YouTube.

Campbell’s assuredness is important when he later encounters Amber McMahon as Eve Kendall, played in the film by the enticing Eva Maria Saint, one of Hitchcock’s fascinating lineups of ‘ice maidens’.

Once again, the stage role of Eve Kendall is played in direct comparison with Eva Maria Saint’s role on film and if it doesn’t live to expectation, the premise of the stage production collapses – but Amber McMahon makes it work.

With considered casting, this production escapes falling into bathos and belief is suspended as the characters take the audience along for a bumpy and often hilarious ride.

North By Northwest is played for laughs as much as suspense, and of laughs it gets plenty.

Taking its verbal cues as much from radio plays of the day as from the film, the characters engage in rapid exchanges of repartee that keep the production moving as much as the dazzling and innovative set changes.

The iconic crop duster chase scene from the 1959 film is recreated brilliantly in the stage production of North by Northwest, now playing the Sydney Lyric Theatre. Photo: Daniel Boud/supplied.

Sliding grids create backdrops and niches for side stage action that give positions for a running newsreader, or expose the mechanics of the kitsch backgrounds with a childlike sense of play, inviting the audience in.

Josh Burns’ work as audio-visual designer cannot be understated as he uses advanced video production techniques in what often seem like throwaway moments but are actually visual displays of theatrical genius.

These visual devices come into their own in the two iconic scenes from the film, the plane chase in the cornfield and the Mt Rushmore climax, which is also choreographed with the most intricate and daring set of sliding platforms.

It would not be the ’50s of the Don Draper era if sharp fashions were not in evidence and costume designer Esther Hayes captures the period perfectly for the leads and ensemble – right down to a hotel room scene where the character Eve Kendall insists that Thornhill take off his suit and get it dry cleaned while waiting for dinner.

A stylish 1950s look is evident in North By Northwest. Photo: Daniel Boud.

A superb and agile cast of ensemble actors assist the star roles, including theatrical stalwart Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Sharon Millerchip and a perfectly cast Genevieve Lemon as Thornhill’s mother.

From the moment the play begins you get the sense that this production is going to be fun while also giving a nod to the brilliance and tension of Hitchcock’s original 1959 vision.

Film aficionados are encouraged to watch for Hitch’s appearance.

North by Northwest plays the Sydney Lyric Theatre, 55 Pirrama Road, Pyrmont until Sunday, 3 April, 2022. For tickets and further information, visit www.northbynorthwesttheplay.com.

John Moyle is the associate editor and special writer for the Sydney Sentinel.

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