NORTH BY NORTH WEST at Bath Theatre Royal

The show makes no bones about its cinematic origins; indeed it wears them on its sleeve.  Even as the show gets going it uses the technique of placing the credits after a little preamble when the cast hold up, in scorecard fashion, letters that spell out production details usually reserved for the centrefold of one’s programme.  It’s all done with a brio and wit that sets the tone for the whole show.  There is even – remembering its origins – a cameo walk-on of a Hitchcock lookalike during some toing and froing, which raised a laugh from the obviously clued-up audience.  In terms of its progenitors it owes as much to that same director’s 1935 film, The 39 Steps, with the theme of mistaken identity and murky goings on in the world of international espionage (here transposed in time to the Cold War) leading to a countrywide chase, as any other ‘road’ story.

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s delightfully improbable plotting has been adapted for stage by Carolyn Burns and director Simon Phillips, the latter having ‘got form’ in adapting road movies for the stage with his previous, Olivier nominated, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The standout feature of this venture is the high tech/low tech nature of the back projections. These involve a live CCTV feed of small toy-like models, operated by the actors, shot against blank screens and superimposed on pre-recorded backgrounds. The result is a slightly surreal, tongue-in-cheek background canvas, which reminded me of the witty, anti-perfection CGI used in The Mighty Boosh. The cinematic connection is carried on in the atmospheric soundscape, which uses Bernard Hermann’s original score with new material by Ian McDonald.

Canadian, Jonathan Watton, plays Roger Thornhill, the unflappable advertising executive whose identity is doggedly oppugned by the tale’s villains. He is subsequently thrust into a desperate, life and death pursuit across America, during which he is both pursued and pursuer, in order to clear his name of the murder of a high ranking representative at the United Nations.  Mr Watton’s Thornhill has just that note of self-belief and confidence that brings a lightness of touch allowing the comic heart of the piece to leaven an otherwise testing plot.

Olivia Fines as, Eve, the vamp from whom spoiler alerts must dangle like seductive jewels, in addition to supplying a healthy dose of that blonde glamour much admired by Sir Alfred, skilfully keeps us guessing as to her true motives.

Love tangles, reversals, twists and discoveries complete the canter through the menu of plot devices, which serve up a scrumptious and entertaining evening of suspense, humour and invention.  ★★★★☆   Graham Wyles   29th July 2017