Review: North By Northwest (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Mar 9 – Apr 3, 2022
Adaptation: Carolyn Burns
Director: Simon Phillips
Cast: David Campbell, Amber McMahon, Bert Labonté, Genevieve Lemon, Berynn Schwerdt, Dorje Swallow, Kaeng Chan, Lachlan Woods, Nicholas Bell, Sharon Millerchip, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Wadih Dona 
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 masterpiece involves espionage, mistaken identities, and an innocent fugitive on the run. It is however, not the story of North by Northwest that is responsible for it being regarded as one of cinematic history’s greatest instalments, but Hitchcock’s virtuosic manipulation of form, that had made the film a monumental achievement.

Transposing to the stage, a movie experience known for its visual trickery, is a formidable task. and this 2015 creation, by director Simon Philips and writer Carolyn Burns, is certainly ambitious. With a heavy reliance on video projections throughout the production (designed by Josh Burns), this theatrical reinvention of North by Northwest begins very much like a tribute to the great Hitchcock, with a tone of reverence that almost drowns out the parodic quality, of both the original and the intentions of this new iteration.

An abrupt shift occurs midway, when the humour becomes decidedly more pronounced. The show gets gradually funnier, as things get more farcical. The pastiche of North by Northwest can range from the very clever to the slightly misguided, but by its second half, the hilarity is undeniable.

Set design by Philips and Nick Schlieper feels more an object of function than of beauty, although Schlieper’s very dynamic lights are definitely an aesthetic pleasure. Together with Esther Marie Hayes’ costumes and Ian McDonald’s soundscapes (based on Bernard Herrmann’s original soundtrack compositions), design aspects of the staging take us back, effectively and pleasurably, to a much more elegant time.

Performer David Campbell is characteristically brimming with charisma, and demonstrates admirable agility for the physical requirements of playing a version of Roger Thornhill without the benefit of close ups, but he never quite delivers the nostalgic sensibilities that we crave. Memories of Cary Grant’s unrivalled suavity remains out of reach.

Leading lady Amber McMahon however is every bit the Hitchcockian femme fatale. As Eve Kendall, she is enigmatic and alluring, but also strangely believable, in this heightened revision of an iconic story and its archetypes. The supporting cast playfully tackle an endless number of small parts, along with manufacturing comically awkward visual gags for the video element. The energy that they emanate, in all their hustle and bustle, is invaluable in sustaining our attention.

It is now 7 years since this work of theatre first appeared in Melbourne, and it seems already to have  been superseded slightly by technocultural advancements. The increased reliance of multi-screens in everyday life, and the proliferation of drone technology, are but two examples of how quickly our senses have grown in sophistication. The simplicity of video in this rendition of North by Northwest, although a fundamental aspect, can seem too quaint and slightly twee. The majesty of Hitchcock’s 63-year-old original persists however, and being able to recall those sensations at this live event, is a real thrill.