Melissa Blease reviews North By Northwest, on at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 12 August

Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1959 thriller North by Northwest laid the groundwork for countless action/suspense dramas to follow, influencing films and TV series from The Prisoner to Mad Men by way of Die Hard, Thunderball, Source Code and (probably) many, many more. I say probably, because I have a confession to make: I’ve never actually seen the film version of North by Northwest, and neither could I claim to be a fan of the kind of movie, play or book with a theme that falls into the ‘cliffhanger’ category. I most definitely am, however, a fan of stylish, fast-paced, funny theatrical extravaganzas that dance along to a smart, witty beat – which is why this production ticked all the boxes on my entertainment wish list.

Moments before settling down to cocktails and dinner with friends, urbane advertising executive Roger O Thornhill is abducted by a couple of thugs whose boss claims to be one Lester Townsend, but is in actual fact an enemy agent named Phillip Vandamm. Vandamm believes that Thornhill is actually a US government agent called George Kaplan, and further believes that Kaplan is onto a plan by Vandamm and his associates to smuggle microfilm containing government secrets out of the country (yup, we’re chillin’ on Cold War territory here).

When Thornhill tries to wriggle his way out of this surreal situation, Vandamm and his cronies try to do away with him by plying him with Bourbon and putting him behind the wheel of a stolen car; he survives, only to put in the frame for the murder of the real Lester Townsend, a diplomat, by one of Vandamm’s henchmen at the United Nations building.

And so a terrifying, complex game of cat and mouse begins, as Thornhill is pursued from New York to Chicago by both Vandamm’s cronies and the law. He’s in turn aided, abetted and frustrated by Eve Kendall, who he meets and falls for on a train, and is chased across a cornfield by a crop-dusting plane that’s armed with more than just insecticide before a climactic final scene involving a chase across Mount Rushmore and a near-death slide down President Lincoln’s nose. Phew!

From the opening scenes to the final, gripping denouement, the understandable feelings of panic and frustration that come with being the focus of a seriously complicated case of mistaken identity drives this high-octane drama along at breakneck speed, sticking faithfully to the plot of the movie right down to imaginative use of kinetic typography in the opening ‘credits’ and an early cameo by ‘Hitchcock’ himself.

Jonathan Watton is deliciously debonair as our hero, while the chemistry between him and his vampish cohort (Olivia Fines) is palpable – were this production an interactive theatrical ‘experience’, there would be several moments when “get a room!” would be the obvious audience response. Not that there’s much space left for any kind of interjection; while the story, and the scene-change choreography, move faster than the train that whisks Thornhill across the country, the on-stage action never drops a beat either, augmented by backdrop projections and props operated by members of the multi-tasking cast, but visible at the edges of the stage so the audience can see the clever use of red and blue screen technology in action.

Inevitably, a stage version of an iconic film by the undisputed master of the suspense genre isn’t going to achieve quite the same levels of heebie-jeebie goose-bump inducement that a big-screen version played in a darkened room can have, and there are times when this production relies more heavily on comedy rather than creepiness. But by and large, Simon Phillips’ direction produces a play all authentically Hitchcockian enough, blending nail-biting drama with slick entertainment and a generous smattering of the fear factor, paying respectful, elegant, stylish homage to the great man himself.

Visit: theatreroyal.org.uk

For more, read our interview with director of North By Northwest, Simon Phillips

Main image: Jonathan Watton as Roger O Thornhill and Olivia Fines as Eve. Credit: Nobby Clark