North by Northwest: a giddy delirious thriller 26 September 2017.
by Drew Rowsome- Photos by Nobby Clark
Beloved films, especially musicals, are frequently adapted for the stage. It's only fair, original stage plays have been the source material for films since cinema began. Sometimes recreations in a vastly different medium reveal unique nuances, sometimes they settle for nostalgia, and sometimes, like North by Northwest, they are just so much damn fun that they are irresistible.
Alfred Hitchcock's film is a revered classic that most people will have at least a passing familiarity with. It is also full of the film director's renowned close-ups, editing and calculated mise en scene, all tricky things to recreate on stage. Director Simon Phillips (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical) and playwright Carolyn Burns solve the dilemma inventively with a combination of the charmingly handmade and hi-tech gadgetry. The audience not only gets to gasp as the famous crop-duster scene actually comes to life, they also get to marvel at the way it is created.
It is wildly entertaining but at first feels like theatrical grandstanding without purpose until the second act when, already enmeshed in the convoluted plot and suspenseful action, the props and cast dive headfirst (pun intended) into blissful camp in the style of the master Charles Ludlam. North by Northwest delivers a faithful recreation of a beloved film but also comments on an outrageous and dizzying number of ideas. Sex roles, xenophobia, even a glancing but pointed gay reference, and most delightfully, the artifice of celebrity are all sent up. The show begins with a comic parody of the credits wherein the cast declares themselves "A Cast of Thousands." All but the two leads play multiple roles and they do so with glee, a wink, and most crucially robotic choreography - after all Hitchcock referred to actors as "cattle" - when playing extras, causing the audience to consider the fate of all the talents that weren't blessed with the looks and luck of a Cary Grant or an Eva Marie Saint.
Olivia Fines as the femme fatale Eve is a delight. She snaps out lines in a kewpie doll/Betty Boop voice, uses her impossibly sculpted legs for stiletto punctuation, and simultaneously evokes an iconic Hitchcockian icy-blonde while also sending it up with hilarious results. Ludlam would be proud. And envious. Jonathan Watton (XX, Murdoch Mysteries, Closet Monster) faces the daunting prospect of evoking Cary Grant's seemingly effortless charm. Watton is suave, exceedingly handsome, adds a loose-limbed athletic grace to the role and has a deft way with double-takes. He winks at the audience and, like the production, ignores the fourth wall in order to draw us in while staying absolutely, rigorously faithful to the barrier they have just broken. And he and Fines have a chemistry that sizzles.
The two who benefit most from North by Northwest, are, alas, no longer with us. While Hitchcock is known for his visual skill, we often forget just how witty the screenplays and dialogue is in his films. Ernest Lehman's original repartee gets a spotlight thanks to the theatre's focus on words. The lines are snappy, funny, and camp all at once - revered for being the source of so much and gently mocked for the same reason. The theatrical setting also brings Bernard Herrmann's powerful score to the forefront. Ian McDonald's adaptation/rearrangement emphasizes the beats, there is one comedic jump scare, and the way a great score gives emotional cues and amplifies heightened states is, again, simultaneously celebrated and gently mocked.
And the cast of thousands is seamless. Tom Davey looms enticingly, Abigail McKern dithers deliciously and makes more instantaneous costume changes than seems humanly possible, and everyone slides from thespian to prop master to prop with smooth abandon. The clockwork precision would undoubtedly amuse Sir Alfred, it certainly amused an audience gasping in continual delight.
North by Northwest continues until Sun, Oct 29 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St W. mirvish.com