In the 1959 thriller, one of the most iconic of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, we’re reminded of the dynamic pairing of screen hunk Cary Grant, and the master suspense director. Who else would conjure up sequences of imaginative creativity; stranding the suave Grant in the midst of a vast cornfield being bombarded by a crop dusting aircraft…and having him clamber over the famous presidential stone faces carved on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.
In a sense, the story mimics a James Bond figure, in this case a dapper advertising executive who, in a case of mistaken identity, gets harassed and drawn into a lethal game of cat and mouse. Exotic action sequences and steamy erotic tensions (blonde femme temptress), the plot’s debonair villain, toxic espionage, and the sardonic, self-aware tone of the acting, nods to the reality of events in the source film. Carried over to this theatrical adaptation its an acknowledgement of Hitchcock’s mastery of the genre.
With all its flurry, this isn’t a slapstick variation of an old theme. It leans more towards comedy than a pulse pounding thriller, without diluting the suspense factor. As a further stimulus for audiences, the clever and intricate construction of events are shown in full view (actors manipulate equipment simulating film close ups projected on the upstage backdrop). This effectively reinforces the creative inventiveness of stagecraft artistry, the life blood of theatre. Viewers imaginations kick in, and coupled with scintillating cast performances, this retelling crackles.
The film comes to life on stage. From opening curtain, the assembled cast display cards spelling out the credits leading the audience to anticipate a fun two hour and ten minutes of jolly entertainment. At final fade out (again mimicking film technique), the cards spell “the end”. The twists, thrills and narrow escapes nods to Hitchcock’s creative original (even a reanactment of a cameo walk through by the portly filmmaker receives applause). The show verges on the spectacular in a blending of cinema and theatrical visions. Live action, video projection, scale models, and simple props (card tables are utilized for the climactic Mt. Rushmore sequences as video images of presidental heads appear).
The man on the run, Roger Thornhill, is suddenly overwhelmed with intrusions of spies, federal lawmen, the inevitable mysterious blonde, interference from his overbearing mother, as well as the menacing aircraft, all mysterious invasions in his well ordered life.
Thornhill (played by Canadian Jonathan Watton who channels Cary Grant quite effectively) is a suave and successful advertising executive, abducted by thugs who insist he is a man called George Kaplan. There’s obviously been a mix up. Thornhill is infuriated when they don’t believe him. They threaten death, and pin a murder on him. Its time to make a getaway! So begins the chase from New York to South Dakota in this lightning paced thriller that mixes glamour with espionage in a smooth mixture of brains, cartoonish brawn brutality, smoldering beauty and wink,wink humor.
Unless one is unfamiliar with the source film, the image of Cary Grant is etched in imagination, but Watton’s portrayal merely is a suggestion of the film superstar. The Canadian actor (who has performed at Theatre Aquarius and has extesive credits in theatre, film and television, David Cronenberg’s Map to the Stars), fits the role with his own personna, bypassing any suggestion of impersonation. The Thornhill character is solid….I was comfortable with Watton’s interpretation.
Gerald Kyd is the sophisticated spy and evil ringleader, Vandamm, the role originally played by James Mason. Kyd’s manner is appropriately oily and icy sleek. Abigail McKern (daughter of Leo McKern, Rumpole of the Bailey), is sarcastically brittle as Roger’s well-meaning, meddling mother. Olivia Fines slinks along with veiled sexuality as Eve Kendall, Roger’s mysterious sidekick.
North By Northwest which originated in Melbourne in 2015, is on stage at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto through October 29.