Today’s moviegoers, spoiled by the limitless capabilities of CGI, have high expectations when it comes to special effects. But there was a time when the power of the silver screen relied on a more practical kind of magic. Of course, the objective of these cinematic sleights of hand was to be convincing enough for the audience to buy into the deception. But half the joy of Carolyn Burns and Simon Phillips’ live-action incarnation of Hickcock’s Cold War spy thriller is in seeing how the tricks are conjured.
Following the spiraling calamities of ad man Roger Thornhill, as a case of mistaken identity draws him into a shadowy world of espionage, spycraft and secret trafficking, Hitchcock’s mastery of cinematography and its ability to amp up the suspense and drama of a scene has assured North by Northwest’s place in the pantheon of great movies. It’s also the lynchpin of this theatrical adaptation. Rather than solely relying on the audience’s fixed perspective on the stage, miniatures and practical effects, captured in real-time from two booths on either side of the stage and projected onto the rear of the set, conjure the dynamic vistas and sense of momentum that thrives in Hitchcock’s films, allowing for the best of both worlds: the visceral immediacy of live theatre, and the epic scope of the screen.
But this production's greatest innovation is also one of its pitfalls. There’s a cute whimsy in seeing a miniature crop duster being waved about on a stick, while at the same time we watch as Thornhill dives for cover in a cornfield as a lifesized plane swoops from on high. Titters of laughter and gasps of delight ripple through the audience multiple times during the production, as various iconic moments from the film are jerry-rigged from miniature busses and carefully positioned sticks – the appearance of Mount Rushmore is a particularly hilarious highlight.
Which would all be fine, if Hitchcock had intended his spy caper to be played so explicitly for laughs. There are many shades of entertainment, and without question, audiences will have an excellent time during this show. But skewing the vibe so conspicuously towards comedy is a trade-off which robs the storytelling of the systolic thump of adrenaline that is so much a part of Hitchcock’s genius. Humour is an element in nearly all of Hitchcock's movies, so an undercurrent of this would be apropos. But the show becomes so overly focused on quietly chuckling at the character tropes of North by Northwest’s original era, it seems to limit the actors in whatever nuance their instincts might otherwise summon.
However, to his credit, Phillips has cast actors who manage to keep these caricaturish characterisations as more of a knowing wink than an all-out mockery. David Campbell is every bit the matinee idol, drawing liberally from his experience both as a prime time TV host and a musical theatre luminary to give the role of Thornhill a jolt of megawatt charisma that cannot fail to charm, even if his attempt at Cary Grant’s distinctive intonation is a little on the hammy side.
Stepping into Eve Marie Saint’s high-heeled shoes as double-agent seductress Eve Kendall, Amber McMahon lays on the sex bomb archetype thick. And knowingly so it seems, as if to firmly anchor this reductive stereotype in a bygone era; a version of womanhood that has no place in sincerity, certainly not in 2022.
The rest of the 12-strong ensemble flit between multiple roles with impressive assuredness, with much of the stage action and nimble transitions calling upon a level of precise choreography that is so confident, it goes almost entirely unnoticed. Indeed, the number of points of possible failure in this technically finickity show are many, so it’s a credit to both cast and crew that there is a sense of absolute trust from the audience that every moment will land as intended. And that is perhaps the facet of this show that shares the most synergy with Hitchcock. A master of his craft has been reimagined by a collective of masters in their own right, so while the great auteur might wince at the fun being made of his masterpiece, it seems likely that he’d applaud the skill it took to achieve it.