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North by Northwest thrills on stage

So how can Alfred Hitchcock’s technical mastery of his 1959 film North by Northwest successfully transition to stage? With exactly the same creative thinking-outside-the-box genius the director was recognised for more than 60 years ago.

Hand-in-hand with 9 to 5, another movie successfully adapted to stage, transforming North by Northwest was a bigger challenge, as recreating the movie, which elevated Alfred Hitchcock from simple entertainer to a brilliant director creating some of the most memorable scenes in film history, was a little more complex than simply illustrating office life in the 80s.

It’s 1958 New York City, smack in the middle of the USA and Soviet Union’s Cold War. Swaggering and suave Roger Thornhill (David Campbell) is a successful Madison Avenue advertising gun, who suddenly finds himself abducted and mistaken for enemy spy George Caplin (a mystery man).

Thornhill goes on the run, determined to find the elusive Caplin and clear his name. Throw in some trigger-happy thugs, a beautiful, blonde femme fatale, a controlling mother, a mysterious professor and an icy cold villain, and we’re running right alongside him, dodging bullets, a plane, speeding drunkenly along roads, hiding from police, hanging from a cliff and just for a little respite, getting loved up on a train.

Amber McMahon and David Campbell as star-crossed lovers in North by Northwest

The play, which premiered in Melbourne in 2015, directed by Simon Phillips and adapted by Carolyn Burns, presents different, but just as effective, technical mastery to put you right in the path of that crop duster and dangling from the precipice of Mount Rushmore.

For a start, there is no illusion. We’re transfixed and bemused as we watch actors, stage left and right, manipulating tiny toys and models, their actions filmed and projected (Josh Burns) onto the back wall. Trust me, just like Thornhill, you’ll want to hit the deck when that plane emerges over the cornfields and heads straight towards you.

Campbell, the consummate musical theatre performer (Shout, Sunset Boulevard, Dream Lover, Les Miserables), can’t rely on singing and dancing to get him through, and he’s on stage most of the time, but he doesn’t miss a beat in his dramatic and farcical role of Thornhill, complete with his classic New York drawl.

Amber McMahon is perfect as Eve Kendall, dangerous and seductive. But whose side is she actually on? Genevieve Lemon is as acerbic as she is flamboyant, the mum you can’t help but love, while Bert Labonté is true to the villain Philip Van Damm and Tony Llewellyn Jones maintains the mystery shrouding the Professor.

You don’t need to have watched the film for reference, the performance stands perfectly well on its own, and because the magic behind it is so obvious, it’s okay to laugh at the absurdity, while still enjoying the thrill of the chase.

Go see it. It’s solid.

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