sat 20/04/2024

Double Feature, Hampstead Theatre review - with directors like these, who needs enemies | reviews, news & interviews

Double Feature, Hampstead Theatre review - with directors like these, who needs enemies

Double Feature, Hampstead Theatre review - with directors like these, who needs enemies

John Logan peers behind the scenes of the film world to muse on the icky relationship between life and art

Joanna Vanderham and Ian McNeice in 'Double Feature'Images - Manuel Harlan

It’s awards season in the film world, which means that we’re currently swamped by hyperbolic shows of love and respect – actors and their directors gushing about how each could simply never have reached their creative heights without the other. Of course, it’s not always like that; there is plenty of hell unleased on a movie set. 

John Logan’s new play investigates the messier, uglier side of the director-actor dynamic, by considering two real-life, notorious, if very different confrontations. One is between Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren, during the shooting of Marnie, in 1964 in Los Angeles, when the director’s obsession with his leading actress turned decidedly nasty; the other, the face-off between young director Michael Reeves and veteran star Vincent Price, as they made the low-budget British horror film The Witchfinder General, in Suffolk in 1967. 

One of these relationships was much more twisted than the other. Yet, by throwing them under the same spotlight – literally putting them side by side on stage – Logan seeks to derive a collective truth about the creative process. 

He succeeds only to a point; I’m not convinced that there’s enough correspondence between the two encounters for the conceit to bear too much fruit; and the suggestion that any amount of pain is worth a piece of art is highly debatable. But, as well-written and acted as this is, there’s more than enough for an absorbing, provocative, highly entertaining play, 

In his research, Logan hit on an unusual detail that would offer his connecting device: the expat Hitchcock had his bungalow on the Universal lot designed to look like an English country cottage. Since Reeves stayed in a country cottage in Bury St Edmunds while shooting Witchfinder, the Hampstead set becomes a cottage living room and kitchen, in which both dramas will take place, for the most part simultaneously. As rain lashes the window, the door knocks; no-one answers, so Price (Jonathan Hyde, pictured above) lets himself in and bellows, “Where is the goddam boy genius?” Reeves (Rowan Polonski) enters, a little flustered. And Price, who’s already helped himself to a drink, follows up with another question: “Who do I have to fuck to get off this picture?”

Price is furious at the humiliations inflicted by Reeves, in their first three weeks of shooting; the director wanted Donald Pleasence as his lead, but has had Price imposed on him by the studio and hasn’t hidden his resentment. So, Price has decided to quit. As much as he doesn’t want him, Reeves knows that his actor’s departure would signal the end of the film – and maybe his career; over the course of the evening he must convince his star to change his mind. 

With his goatee, cravat and arch theatricality, Hyde immediately conjures a very good Vincent Price – if only he’d added that unmistakable, devilishly mellifluous voice, rather than a stock American accent, it would have been perfect. Polonski (pictured below, with Hyde) offers the lesser-known Reeves as a slim, turtlenecked, nervy 24-year-old, who takes himself far too seriously, veering between socially conscious sincerity, schoolboy tantrum and profound insecurity; he is particularly effective when revealing the deep depression that perhaps contributed to Reeves’s accidental death, just a year after the action here. 

Alongside the generation gap, this is a culture clash between an old pro who’s become accustomed to going hammily over the top, and a would-be auteur who craves for realism. “I’ve made 75 movies, how many have you made?” snarls Price. “Two good ones,” comes the excellent reply, along with the demand that the actor “shoot your scenes without your fucking camp.”

Meanwhile, two other figures have come on stage, which now doubles as the faux cottage across the Atlantic. This time it’s Hedren (Joanna Vanderham) who knocks at the door, to be greeted by Hitchcock (Ian McNeice), these actors perfectly manifesting their physically distinctive real-life characters – he the dramatically rotund, smugly assured veteran director, she the latest, icily beautiful incarnation of a “Hitchcock blonde”. 

Hedren is elegantly dressed and keen to join friends for the evening; Hitchcock insists that they dine together, alone, and rehearse. His size is oppressive, intimidating, his manner controlling, alternating between the promise of exciting new roles and the threat to destroy her career if she doesn’t play ball. As the night wears on, his demands become sexual. 

Logan is drawing upon Hedren’s well-documented allegations of sexual harassment against Hitchcock (the theme of the television film The Girl).  As presented here, it’s almost unbearable to watch. Director Jonathan Kent and his actors skilfully navigate the script and the space, as Logan flips to and fro between the two settings. In one, it’s the director on the back foot, Reeves battling to keep his star on board and his film afloat, in the other the actor, as Hedren struggles to escape her director’s clutches. Somehow, neither story is ever overshadowed; at one point the two pairs even sit at the same table to dine; often one piece of dialogue seamlessly transfers to the other. 

Logan is an accomplished screenwriter as well as playwright, whose films include GladiatorThe Aviator and two Bonds – Skyfall and Spectre. So it’s not surprising that cinematic anecdote and trope are integral to the drama. Hitchcock’s narrow, jaundiced view of women and the world is reflected in a compulsion to view every human exchange as a camera shot – a close-up, a medium, a low-angle; his pat generalisation of his basic plot as “kiss kiss, kill kill” is creepy and menacing, as is his evident identification with Marnie’s male protagonist, a rapist, who Hitchcock insists is the woman’s saviour. 

In the other story, while I disagree with Logan’s casual dismissal of Price’s Edgar Allan Poe movies with Roger Corman, the jousting between Price and Reeves over cinema trends (as well as art and cooking) is informed and engaging. There’s also a fabulous imagining of the turning point – more hellish despair than direction – that leads Price to what is generally regarded as one of his best (and, correspondingly, low-key) performances. 

If plays were ever presented as double features, this could easily go alongside The Motive and the Cue. On its own, it’s a lean, dynamic, one-stretch 90 minutes: if only more films, these days, could do that.

Hitchcock’s narrow, jaundiced view of women and the world is reflected in a compulsion to view every human exchange as a camera shot

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Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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