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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

Double Feature, Hampstead Theatre

Alfred Hitchcock was a brilliant filmmaker, but he was undoubtedly also a complicated man with a penchant for manipulating and controlling his icy blonde leading ladies.

Directing Tippi Hedren in the 1964 film Marnie in the twilight of his career, this knottiness in his directorial style spilled over into the domineering power-play depicted to unsettling effect in John Logan’s new play Double Feature.

As the title indicates, the emotional chess between Hitchcock (Ian McNeice) and Hedren (Joanna Vanderham) is one of two entwined stories that examine the push and pull between director and star.

The other, set in a Suffolk country cottage in 1967, sees Vincent Price (Jonathan Hyde) foisted upon neophyte director Michael Reeves (Rowan Polonski) by the studio for his horror film Witchfinder General.

Reeves wants Price to restrain his hammy, scene-chewing tendencies but humiliated Price is threatening to walk, leaving Reeves’s career hanging in the balance.

Veteran and visionary lock horns in a tussle about the nature of art on a film set. Reeves believes “serious cinema is about discomfort”, while Price concludes that, “When you get older, you learn you can’t feel everything all the time.”

In a stroke of visually shrewd theatricality, both stories play out simultaneously but autonomously in the same space with all four protagonists on stage throughout the play. On to this interlocked dramatic architecture are woven mirrored images, parallel themes, variant meanings of the same words and overlapping lines.

Hedren and Hitchcock’s conversations are always ostensibly about making Marnie, but Logan laces Hitchcock’s dialogue with uncomfortably sexualised double entendres which McNeice delivers with deadpan poise.

In combination with the queasy emotions that flicker over Vanderham’s mesmerising, vividly expressive face, the tension within the uneven power dynamic ratchets up to disturbing levels.

At times, the two stories read like cerebral and visceral sides of the same coin, but there’s no escaping the disparity of gender regarding notions of status, agency and age.

Because he has plucked Hedren from modelling “mediocrity”, elevated her to movie star “immortality” and signed her to a personal watertight contract, Hitchcock feels an objectified ownership over Hedren, who concludes that she’s just “the girl” whose clothes and make-up are constantly disparaged by Hitchcock.

On the other hand, Reeves’s febrile cineaste might be decades younger than the “camp grand old dame” Price, but he’s still nominally Price’s boss and their exchanges are more evenly matched.

Overall, the play is very filmic in its execution. Late in the play when Hedren is framed and spotlighted in the doorway dead centre upstage, the whole stage shifts like Hitchcock’s famous dolly zoom camera manoeuvre which he used when he wanted to portray a character’s disorientation without words. That is the magic of theatre.

Jonathan Kent’s production’s footsure performances and clever central conceit ensures that John Logan’s witty new play whizzes by in edge-of-your-seat enjoyment.

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