REVIEW: North by Northwest at the Lyric Theatre

Review By Michelle Sutton Simon Phillips directs North by Northwest, Carolyn Burns’ stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 spy-thriller film of the same name. Starring Cary Grant, the film is often referred to as the precursor for the James Bond franchise, boasting many of the same elements including a charming lead, a glamorous femme fatale, car chases, mistaken identity and other extravagant secret agent hijinks. The sleek and visually stunning production works as a tribute to both cinema and theatre, but has very little to offer in the way of substance. David Campbell is a suitable choice to play the lead character of Roger Thornhill. He has the 1950s Old Hollywood accent perfected, as well as the energy and discipline to anchor the show for its 2 hour and 10-minute duration. The cast is extremely solid across the board, with crisp and clean choreographed movements and good comedic timing. Composer Ian McDonald and costume designer Esther Hayes have done a wonderful job bringing 1950s New York, Chicago and South Dakota to life. Parts of the film’s original score by Bernard Herrman are also used to great effect. Although the stage adaption is presented as a tongue-in-cheek, romantic-comedy, it is full to the brim with glaring misogyny. Some promotion of the show states that the classic femme-fatale character of Eve Kendall has been slightly adapted to have “more agency” which is in itself a very bad omen. If in order to stage the material it requires the lead female character to be adapted to resemble more of a person perhaps it is better to leave the material alone all together. Hearing beloved entertainer and daytime television personality David Campbell declaring in his old Hollywood Transatlantic accent that the character of Kendall is “a treacherous little tramp” as she “uses sex like most people use a fly-swatter” is horrifying and jarring, as are the resounding laughs from the audience. I am unsure why this dialogue was left out of the edits that were made regarding the character of Eve Kendall and her role in the story. It is not nearly enough to give her character “more agency” if this is the way that she is still viewed and valued by the protagonist. A large part of Act II revolves around advertising executive Thornhill trying to rescue professional spy Kendall in increasingly condescending ways, at one point grabbing her by the shoulders and yelling “stop being manipulated!”. I have seen the film North by Northwest before and understand that the script is in keeping with Hitchcock’s original dialogue as much as possible however I do not believe in the merit of preserving harmful, belittling gender stereotypes and reinforcing dangerous double standards for the sake of nostalgia and whimsy. As a 25-year-old woman, I felt deeply uncomfortable for the majority of the Second Act. Some people may find the production a bit of light-hearted fun, but it is ultimately fun at someone else’s expense. Where a 1950s romantic spy romp may present men with an opportunity for escapism to imagine themselves as a suave, high-flying, irresistibly charming executive and action-hero, it does not present this same outlet for women: the world presented does not conjure up idyllic feelings because it does not feel all that faraway and is in fact a bleak reminder of the little progress we have made since the 1950s in terms of equality and societal attitudes towards women and their sexuality. North by Northwest is an odd choice of play to stage in 2022, most notably because it doesn’t really have anything to say. The production does not seem to be sure if it is making fun of itself or not, which leaves the audience in a state of confusion. Overall, the show seems more like a tribute to the history of cinema and theatre than an engaging and compelling story in its own right. The highlight of the production is the set and audio-visual design, it is not only high value, cleverly designed and expertly executed but incredibly creative and joyful. It invites the audience to embrace the wonders of childlike imagination, as they see the crew literally play with toys on stage, manoeuvring model cars, trains and airplanes to create special effects and action sequences. This casts a sense of playful fun over the production which is lovely, however in my opinion not enough to detract from the deeply sexist elements of the play. North by Northwest at the Lyric Theatre is definitely a theatrical spectacle, but lacking in substance. It will be enjoyed by lovers of the original film and appreciators of production value but is not likely to leave a lasting impression.

Image Credit: Daniel Boud