North by Northwest (QPAC and Kay & McLean Productions)
QPAC, Lyric Theatre
November 27 – December 9
“There’s an interval about an hour in, just after the plane crash and fire,” the usher explains as we enter the Lyric Theatre for “North by Northwest”. And true-enough, remarkably the show absolutely does justice to the visually-iconic late-period Alfred Hitchcock classic chase film of the same name. Not only do see our hero ambushed by a crop duster in a cornfield, and attempt a literally cliff-hanging escape down the faces of Mount Rushmore in the suspense of an attempted across-America escape, but a human creation of the film’s opening title sequence design of titled blocks and a playful nod to the film director’s signature cameos. Indeed, immediately it is clear that the show’s complex film projections and blue screen technology special effects, are going to recreate for us all that is ionic about the 1959 movie.
The Cold War-era story tells of the efforts of C.I.A. chief of sorts, The Professor (Robert Menzies) attempting to force the hand of a group of enemy agents by placing an invented Caplan character on their trail. Savvy advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Matt Day), played memorably in the film by Cary Grant, lands himself in trouble when he is mistaken for the mythical Mr Caplan and kidnapped. As his life is thus thrown into chaos, he is chased across the country as he attempts to avoid capture, meeting a beautiful and mysterious love interest, Eve Kendall (Amber McMahon) along the way.
It’s a confusing account. Veteran Hitchcock actor Grant himself noted how baffling he found the film’s screenplay. This production cleverly captures even this ambiguity through simple, but skilful, representations like moving giant fans in as aircraft noise in the scene when The Professor explains what the plot is about and why the mysterious, villainous Vandamm (Jonny Pasvolsky) is hunting Thornill.
Carolyn Burns’s script adaptation is not word perfect, but it does capture the film’s sharp dialogue, particularly in the quick quips of often forward sexual banter. And the typical Hichcockian situations are evident from the outset, despite a more hurried pacing, that brings added comedy to the bustling busy scenes and quick-change set pieces.
Most impressive, is the way in which cinema effects are created live by the cast against green screen backdrops either side of the stage and integrated into the show through video screen projection. In nod to the early days when special effects came courtesy of miniature set models, these almost dodgy dioramas work a treat, allowing for a drunken car drive down twisting mountain roads and fantastic real-life Mount Rushmore reveal. All the while, the central live action remains the focus; rather than serving as novelty, the projections are integral to the storytelling, especially in progressing the narrative along with show of newspaper headlines and alike. Clearly, there is a very modern appeal to this “North by Northwest”, but it not at expense of the old-school suspense and charm the is at the core of the film. The experience is filled with era-evocative details such as the costuming recreation of Grant’s loose-fit, iconic stylish suit.
The story also includes an array of secondary and passer-by characters, courtesy of the hardworking support cast. Brisbane’s own Christen O’Leary, for example, jumps in and out of roles and accents with ease. The primary cast bring excellent performances to what are essentially paper-thin characters. Pasvolsky makes for a smooth arch-villain and McMahon is every bit a put-together platinum blonde leading lady who could tease a man to death without half trying, albiet with a little more assertion in modernisation of the character. And while not as suave as the glossy Grant, Matt Day is certainly of the type, bringing a likeable charm to the debonair central character in all of his roles: the outraged Madison Avenue man who claims he’s been mistaken for someone else, the fugitive from justice, supposedly trying to clear his name of a crime he knows he didn’t commit and a peevish lover, stung by jealousy and betrayal. And his delivery is on-point with the overarching tongue-in-cheek tone, with line after line landing with one-liner appeal.
Another authenticity comes from the show’s musical score which takes the audience through chases, suspense and love. From the whip and wail of the opening title-sequence overture, the musical story develops in compliment of the narrative and define of its situations and emotions. But the soundscape is also smartly silent when it needs to be too and without music or other sounds, the immensity of the crop-dusting sequence makes it a memorable lead in to intermission.
“North by Northwest” is a dynamic, highly-creative show from a clever group of cast and creatives. While some microphone cue lapses were evident on opening night, the show will obviously settle into its season as it is otherwise seamless in every regard. Presenting a play in the large Lyric Theatre is an unusual undertaking and “North by Northwest” is particularly ambitious given the action that defines the famous film, but as QPAC CEO John Kotzas noted, the theatre is only as big as our imagination, and in its precision and awe in attention to detail, “North by Northwest” fills audience imaginations and recollections, for although allusions will be appreciated by those familiar with the film in some way, audience members who don’t have this prior knowledge, won’t miss out either. The well-paced two-hour show (under Simon Phillips’ tight direction) offers a nice balance between action, romance and comedy, but with a considered restraint that never allows the cloak-and-dagger chase storyline to descend into farce. And the result is a must-see show of love and murder at first sight.
Photos c/o – Darren Thomas