Hampstead Theatre – until 16th March 2024
Reviewed by Celia Armand Smith
It’s 1960s Los Angeles, and internationally renowned director Alfred Hitchcock (Ian McNeice) is hosting his exhausted and struggling muse Tippi Hedren (Joanna Vanderham) at his cottage on a studio backlot while they film ‘Marnie’. He boasts about discovering her, controls her wardrobe, and comments on her every move as though he can’t stop being a director, even at home. In a Suffolk cottage (which coincidentally looks the same as Hitchcock’s cottage) a few years later are Vincent Price (Jonathan Hyde) and his young director Michael Reeves (Rowan Polonski), arguing about the treatment of the star on the set of a new horror film called ‘Witchfinder General’. A same same but different power dynamic at play.
Hitchcock is known to have treated women terribly, objectifying and manipulating them, and McNeice adds a subtly to a role that could easily have been a caricature. Vanderham’s portrayal of trapped Hedren in a beautiful pale blue suit is tense and despairing, and we are left willing her to stand up to the horrible Hitchcock. Price and Reeves have a similar strange and difficult realtionship. Polonski is brilliant as the troubled 24 year old director, wrestling with mental health problems and authenticity in film. In contrast to the wired Reeves, Hyde’s Price is wonderfully disillusioned and tired, and just wants to do the job he’s always done while ageing out of an industry built for young people. The Price/Reeves relationship is the more engaging on stage, but I am gripped reading about Hedren and Hitchcock all the way home.
Written by celebrated screenwriter and playwright John Logan, and directed by Jonanthan Kent, the weaving in and out of these stories of power dynamics and manipulation is at times both anxiety inducing and awkward. There are beautiful moments of perfect synchronicity involving both pairs; at one point they are all eating around the table together but years apart, a seamless ballet of speech and movement.
Anthony Ward’s set is wonderfully familiar, with staffordshire dogs and moody decor, able to be located in Los Angeles and Suffolk simultaneously. Hugh Vantstone’s lighting dances around the cast, highlighting who is talking, quietly hiding the other pair when necessary.
There are elements of this production that are all at once laugh out loud entertaining and quietly tragic, but even in this economy, getting two plays for the price of one isn’t quite the bargain you think it is. The stories and the director/actor pairings are more deserving of space and separation, and more importantly the steadfast focus and attention of the audience.