North by Northwest

North by Northwest
Adapted by Carolyn Burns, from the Alfred Hitchcock film. Directed by Simon Phillips. Sydney Lyric Theatre. March 16 – April 3, 2022.

A movie can do drunken car rides and a crop duster zooming over a lone figure on an empty road then crashing into a truck, no problem! But to do it on the stage? Sounds a bit far-fetched doesn’t it? Anyone who remembers Cary Grant racing across America dodging villains in the movie North by Northwest would probably say “No way! In your dreams!”

Give such a “dream” to producers like Andrew Kay and Liza McLean, a playwright like Carolyn Burns, an innovative director  like Simon Phillips and a veritable host of clever designers and they’ll always say: “Why not?”.

Like raising kids, the dream they envisage will need a village – a creative village of listeners, thinkers, planners, builders and organisers that will make the dream a reality. They will need a fit, united crew and a cast of 15 very experienced actors, who, just like the cast of the 1959 movie, are going to career around New York in a taxi and a police car, be swooped at by a crop duster and climb the rocky slope of Mt Rushmore! They will play over 100 characters, make many costume and accent changes, double as stage hands and props manipulators – and will do all that at a cracking pace!

Organising, blocking, choreographing and rehearsing a production like this is only possible with the cooperative and collaborative spirit of the wide arts family. Over 40 creatives involved in set, costumes, wigs, sound, lighting and audio visual design, props and model making have been part of this production. And the responsibilities of the stage management crew are massive.

I managed to catch a few moments with David Campbell, who has the awesome task of taking Roger O. Thornhill, the beleaguered hero of North by Northwest, charging all over America to clear his name. When I observed that this gig is “hard work” his smiling reply, “But so much fun!” encapsulates the essence of this production. It is fun!

It’s obvious from the moment the paper title and credits are ripped off and thrown into the audience that it’s going to be fun. And from the quick-fire lines and lighting of the first scene, it’s obvious that it’s also going to be fast. There are no fixed set pieces in this production. Everything is on wheels. A scene finishes, one or two actors freeze, the lights dim, and every item on the stage – chairs, tables, two dressers, a lounge, a private carriage on a train, even Mt Rushmore – is pushed off at a run. Every actor is involved. No one escapes from very exact choreography of the scene changes, nor the speed at which they occur.

The characters spring straight from 1950s Hollywood. The style, movement, gestures, language, the way the lines are delivered – pace, pause and inference – are Hitchcock, but in the flesh! Whether Campbell’s Thornhill is the slick businessman dictating instructions to his secretary, or the fugitive making love to undercover spy Eva Kendall (Amber McMahon), the filmic image is sustained. Whether Genevieve Lemon is playing Thornhill’s shrill mother or a collector bidding at a Sotherby’s auction; or Bert Labonte is playing a gangster or a policeman with eczema, their characters are clear. Whether other cast members are playing New York cops, a bell boy, a bus driver or an auctioneer … or operating a model train or plane, or moving a tree past the window of the image of a train, or pushing three chairs to simulate a ride in a police car… they are always in the moment, always aware of the split second timing that makes this production work.

“It’s entertaining.” “It was so clever”. “What fun!” Such was the buzz from the audience.  And it is all of that. It’s entertaining because the lines are funny, the timing and pace work perfectly, the characters recreate the ‘goodies and baddies’ of mid-20th century movies. It’s clever because the direction is taut, the action tight and the effects inventive. It’s like a radio play with action and scenery! One of the fun effects involved an actor lying on a skateboard lighting Campbell with a torch as he supposedly inched his way along the outside of a building. Such a simple idea, but effective – and funny.

David Campbell and Amber McMahon lead this multi-character cast. They do a superb job of reinventing the movie hero and heroine of the ‘golden movie’ years … the clipped sentences, the slightly suggestive lines, the just-long-enough lingering love scenes … and of taking their characters climbing to the “dizzying heights” of a cast-created Mt Rushmore.

The physical demands of this production are tough. The pushing, pulling, climbing and the fast scene changes require a very fit and active cast, and this cast, the young and not so young, meet every physical challenge. One and all work hard, never appear to miss a cue, and make every character, large or small, speaking or silent, totally recognisable, and often very amusing. To differentiate between them would be too hard and take far too long. Suffice to say that every one of them is integral to the production.

Simon Phillips is a director who works creatively across every form of theatre. His imagination knows no bounds, and he gathers people around him who see and understand what he sees and wants, and work to achieve it. If ever a major production depended on that sort of ensemble work and trust,  this is it.

Carol Wimmer

Photographer: Daniel Boud

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