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North by North West is an Alfred Hitchcock film that has been adapted for the theatre by Carolyn Burns.

Nobby Clark

2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
North by Northwest
Written by
Carolyn Burns
Genre
Play
Directed by
Simon Phillips
Actors
Jonathan Watton, Olivia Fines
Venue
Royal Alexandra Theatre
City
Toronto
Year
2017
Runs Until
Sunday, October 29, 2017

North by Northwest, an Australian hit that Toronto producer David Mirvish has imported to open his new season, is a strange exercise in trying to put a famous film on a stage – without actually adapting it for the stage.

This tribute of sorts to the classic 1959 Alfred Hitchcock thriller starring Cary Grant is directed by former Melbourne Theatre Company artistic director Simon Phillips – and features a cast of a dozen playing all the police officers, diplomats and spies that twice-divorced ad exec Roger Thornhill dodges in the film, on the run after a case of mistaken identity.

With the script hewing very closely to Ernest Lehman's original screenplay, and staging that relies on an audience's familiarity with the film to amuse, the suspense here doesn't come from wondering how Thornhill will escape a series of jams – but wondering how Phillips and his cast will represent the movie's more famous sequences.

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How will they do the scene where Thornhill is attacked by a crop duster? Or the chase across Mount Rushmore?

The answer is that Phillips employs live camera feeds in creative ways to recreate Hitchcock's iconic images. In rectangular alleys that bookend the Royal Alexandra Theatre stage, actors manipulate toy planes, trains and trucks in front of miniature sets. A camera captures this and then projects it, enlarged, on the back wall of the set – while other actors run around in front of these live backdrops.

In an otherwise imported cast, Canadian Jonathan Watton does most of this interacting with images as Thornhill – the role originally played by Grant – who accidentally gets caught up in a Cold War game of cat and mouse. The wiry actor does a fine job of channelling the devil-may-care spirit of Grant without lapsing into full-on impersonation – and has fine chemistry with Hitchcock blonde Eve (Olivia Fines), the stranger he meets on an overnight train to Chicago – and who turns out to be a femme fatale. Watton really carries the show.

If you've seen the gorgeous, moving, artful use of live cameras and miniatures in the work of Jaco Van Dormael and Michèle Anne De Mey (Kiss & Cry), or that of Robert Lepage (most recently in 887) at Canadian Stage, you won't find much about North by Northwest's use of technology to conjure car rides or train journeys new or especially notable.

But it is intriguing to see these techniques move from subsidized work to the commercial stages of a Mirvish season – and a few of Phillips's choices are certainly charming. I won't spoil how he conjures the faces on Mount Rushmore, but it is entertaining and silly in the extreme.

I wasn't sure, however, why Phillips wanted to deflate the climax of his story with laughter. At times, the Australian director seems to want to go the route of The 39 Steps – another Hitchcock movie that was turned into an international stage hit by making fun of itself and using just four actors to play all the roles.

But, for long stretches, Phillips simply lets North by Northwest unspool as a straight thriller. Is it a spoof or not? The tone is indecisive.

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North by Northwest seems to view itself as a novelty – but, of course, musicals based on movies have been a staple of Broadway for ages and plays are increasingly turning to movies for inspiration. (This season, Lee Hall's stage version of Shakespeare in Love will be the most-produced play across North America.)

The key to the most successful screen-to-stage adaptations has been, well, adaptation – a new take on the material, a transformation of it, or a questioning of it.

Philips doesn't seem all that interested in dissecting anything beyond the aesthetics of North by Northwest – for instance, leaving Hitchcock's tantalizing suggestion that the henchman Leonard played by Martin Landau in the film (Tom Davey in the new version) is gay and jealous of Eve's relationship with his evil boss Vandamm as coded as it is in the original. The dated sexism of the film is similarly left unexamined – and the casting here is as white as the original.

And so, while I wasn't ever bored by North by Northwest, I did find it one of the more pointless things I've seen at a theatre in a long time.

North by Northwest (mirvish.com) continues to Oct. 29

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