Time Out Melbourne

The Melbourne Theatre Company's blockbuster Hitchcock adaptation returns for two weeks in early 2016

The MTC’s world premiere production of North by Northwest was, to the surprise of no one, a huge success. Compelling, outrageous, hilarious and clever, the adaptation of the Cold War classic drew sell-out crowds. In a rare move in Melbourne’s theatre scene, the Arts Centre will take over producing the show from the MTC for this reprisal, in association with original co-producers Kay + McLean Productions. 

The play will return in late January for just two weeks, with the same brilliant cast stepping into their roles (including Matt Day as Cary Grant's ad exec Roger O. Thornhill). “We are truly delighted to be now working with Arts Centre Melbourne and to see the play have the future life it so thoroughly deserves,” says Liza McLean of Kay + McLean Productions.

Tickets are on sale now. This will be your last chance to catch this thrilling show (and to find out how the director brought the famous crop-duster scene to life). Read more about the adaptation process in our interview with playwright Carolyn Burns.

Time Out Melbourne’s North by Northwest review:

At some point in history, someone out there must have said, “If you’re going to fill some shoes, you may as well choose big ones.” You can’t get much bigger than Hitchcock, especially when you throw in Cary Grant, James Mason and Eva Marie Saint. Remaking a film of North by Northwest seems folly enough, but turning it into a stage play is surely just asking for trouble. 

MTC’s tent-pole production manages to both prove and disprove the lunacy of this idea. The show is never short of fun – and has some ingenious ways around the cinematic nature of the source material – but it also fails to break away on its own. It never really feels like a legitimate work in its own right.

The plot is simultaneously ridiculous and compelling. Ad exec Roger O. Thornhill [Matt Day] is mistaken for elusive spy George Kaplan, finding himself pursued by the police and a bunch of stylish crooks, led by Phillip Vandamm [Matt Hetherington]. Quintessential Hitchcock blonde Eve Kendell [Amber McMahon] gets in the way, a seductive but nebulous figure, possibly leading our man to destruction, but ensuring real thrills on the way down.

The charm and engine of the film is its insistence on a structure that blatantly leaps from set piece to set piece. There are only a handful of scenes that lend themselves to a theatrical representation. The most iconic moments are inherently cinematic: the murder attempt by crop duster, and the climax on the face of Mount Rushmore. 

It is therefore a shame that the best moments in this adaptation are the ones that feel most like a straight play. The polite abduction scene at the beginning is almost as good as the film, and the penultimate scene in the modernist house Vandamm is clearly renting is terrific. They work because they are long enough to count as actual scenes, they are incredibly tense and they exist independently of the technological aspects of the show.

The only other stage adaptation of Hitchcock to reach Melbourne has been The 39 Steps, which was only marginally less ambitious than this but also more successful. Perhaps the source material was less iconic, and the approach more theatrical. North by Northwest always feels like it’s catching up to its source, like it's always a few steps behind. If the show were Roger Thornhill, he’d be captured before the end of Act 1.

That said, Matt Day makes a surprisingly effective lead, channeling Cary Grant just enough without appearing slavish. Hetherington is less successful as the villain, coming off as an ersatz James Mason without the authority or sensuousness. There is pleasure in seeing seasoned performers like Deidre Rubenstein, Tony Llewellyn-Jones and Nicholas Bell taking on multiple roles, and the whole thing whips along with energy and panache.

Nick Schlieper’s set and lighting design are nicely evocative of the ’50s Cold War aesthetic – all aluminium and glass – and the Playhouse stage hasn’t seen as much furniture on wheels since David Williamson’s Rupert. The visual effects [Josh Burns] work as a kind of optical Foley, whereby actors manipulate small-scale models on the sides of the stage that are then projected onto the playing space. They work a treat for the most part, especially for surreptitious notes and hair-raising car trips. The crop duster and Mount Rushmore prove beyond the technique’s capacities, and come across as farcical and mocking. In the cinema, these scenes may be tongue-in-cheek but they’re also thrilling. In the theatre, they are merely silly.

Director Simon Phillips, with a brilliant and audacious script adapted by Carolyn Burns from Ernest Lehman’s original screenplay, has produced a zippy and hilarious night in the theatre. It may falter at key moments, but there is enough Cold War intrigue and sexual innuendo on trains to satisfy those familiar with Hitchcock’s masterpiece as much as the uninitiated. Like a kid clumping around in Dad’s shoes, it’s not sophisticated, but it’s pretty entertaining to watch.


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By Tim Byrne   |   Photos by Jeff Busby

North by Northwest details

The Playhouse
100 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne 3004

Telephone 03 8688 0900

Nearby Stations: Flinders Street

Buy tickets

Price $30.00 to $135.00

Date 29 Jan 2016-10 Feb 2016

Open Various.

Director: Simon Phillips

Cast: Matt Day

North by Northwest website

Arts Centre Melbourne map

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