North by Northwest

Hitchcock Movie Tries to Make the Switch to Stage    

The 39 Steps, a 1930s Alfred Hitchcock thriller movie, has been very successfully revised for stage and turned into a hilarious comedy.  Now, Hitchcock’s 1960s movie, North by Northwest, has also been adapted for stage, but I’m not sure if it remains a thriller or whether it’s supposed to be a comedy.  This play is now at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto.

The movie North by Northwest was a typical Hitchcock thriller.  A ruthless spy, VanDamm, is hunting down a government agent named Caplan.  He mistakes Roger Thornhill for Caplan and kidnaps him to obtain information that obviously the innocent Thornhill doesn’t have.  Much to VanDamm’s chagrin, Thornhill lives through an attempt to murder him, and sets out to find the real Caplan.  Both VanDamm’s men and government agents pursue Thornhill.  He is assisted by the beautiful Eve, who turns out to be a double agent.

In the movie, there is great excitement generated when Thornhill is drugged and sent out to drive on a cliff-side road, when he is chased on a cross country train trip, when a crop duster plane terrorizes him, and when scaling Mount Rushmore.

So how can a stage play replicate those exciting scenes?  Well, this production does it, but in some cases it’s more laughable than exciting.

A couch doubles as the front seat of a car, and Thornhill holds a steering wheel, while two people push the couch violently around the stage, making it seem like a dangerous car ride.  On the train, Thornhill meets Eve – the same couch is her bed in her cabin, but there is an upper berth where Thornhill hides.  The crop duster plane is replicated by a little toy plane on a stick that an actor flies around the side of the stage, while the plane is projected on a big screen behind Thornhill.  For the Mount Rushmore scene, three actors are off to the side being filmed, and then their faces are transferred onto the big screen as the faces in the rock.  It is hilarious to see them blinking and smiling there. When Thornhill and Eve have to climb over the mountain, other cast members stack tables and chairs on the stage for them to climb, moving the table from behind them around in front of them, so they can continue their journey.

It’s all really a bit much – so silly that the excitement of the spy mystery is lost.

It was nice to see a Canadian, Jonathan Watton of Newfoundland, in the lead role as Thornhill.  The rest of the cast is from England where this production originated.

I found the entire play rather strange.  Is it supposed to be a real thriller?  Or is it a comedy? We are never sure.

But there are two types of people who will really enjoy it. True, devoted Hitchcock fans will like it because it closely follows the old movie.  For the same reason, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint fans might also like to see their iconic roles, complete with the same costumes, closely replicated here.  People who enjoy seeing inventive techniques used on stage for things that can’t be brought into the theatre, such as trains, cliffs, planes, or mountains, will enjoy this production for its creativity.

But if you’re not familiar with the old North by Northwest movie, and you’re looking for either a thriller or a laugh-out-loud comedy, don’t bother with this show, because it hasn’t figured which it is.

North by Northwest continues with eight shows a week at Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto.  Call Ticket King 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333 or visit for tickets.

Photo: Olivia Fines as Eve and Jonathan Watton in North by North West.  Photo by  Nobby Clark.

North by Northwest
Adapted by Carolyn Burns
Original Screenwriter Ernest Lehman
Directed by Simon Phillips
Performed by Jonathan Watton, Gerald Kyd, Olivia Fines, Abigail McKern, Kieran Gough, Angus Brown, Tom Davey, Nick Sampson, et al.
Produced by Kay & McLean Productions, Theatre Royal Bath Productions and David Mirvish.
Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto
September 19 to October 29, 2017
Reviewed by Mary Alderson


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