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Double Feature at Hampstead Theatre review: Who will win in this battle of Hollywood power games? Who cares

Joanna Vanderham as Tippi Hedren and Ian McNeice as Alfred Hitchcock (Manuel Harlan)
Joanna Vanderham as Tippi Hedren and Ian McNeice as Alfred Hitchcock (Manuel Harlan)

John Logan’s frustrating new play is a pub quiz film round mounted on stage. It awkwardly splices together Alfred Hitchcock’s attempt to control and conquer Tippi Hedren during the filming of Marnie in 1964 and Vincent Price’s fraught relationship with the young, doomed director Michael Reeves on Witchfinder General four years later.

Logan has intelligent ideas about power dynamics between artists – one of his preoccupations – as well as image vs reality, and age vs celluloid immortality. But the characters are little more than stiff, emotionally inconsistent mouthpieces for these thoughts in Jonathan Kent’s stilted production.

The gripping moments – when Reeves reveals his darkest fears, and Hedren has a #MeToo confrontation with Hitch – are artificially engineered. For a play that’s also about truth in art, it feels downright phony throughout, designed to make “the mob in the dark” (as Hitchcock calls audiences here) feel smug when they decode a clever concept or an arcane movie reference.

Brittle 24-year old Reeves (Rowan Polonski) hopes to coax greatness out of camp old horror ham Price (Jonathan Hyde). Hitchcock (Ian McNeice), in physical and artistic decline, hopes to reshape ice-blonde model-turned-sort-of-actress Hedren (Joanna Vanderham) for his lens and his bed.

Both encounters happen in an English cottage designed by Anthony Ward: Reeves’s is on location, Hitchcock’s a fake on the Paramount set. Occasionally the stories synch up or overlap but for the most part, one couple slowly performs a dumbshow – preparing dinner, looking at set designs – while the other pair go at it. Who will win and who will walk away? Who cares?

Double Feature at Hampstead Theatre (Manuel Harlan)
Double Feature at Hampstead Theatre (Manuel Harlan)

Hyde doesn’t attempt Price’s mellifluous sneer but gives us a parody of a self-parody, a has-been drama queen caked in Max Factor no 17 (“Egyptian Gold”), clinging to his dignity. McNeice does Hitch’s fussy imperiousness rather than his accent. Neither seemed entirely on top of their words on opening night.

Vanderham and Polonski have almost impossible roles, each required to boomerang repeatedly from docile politeness to extremes of emotion. Vanderham must also embody and transcend Hedren’s glacial beauty. It’s impossible for any of the actors to find a strand of conviction in their characters, because there isn’t one.

Logan is a hotshot screenwriter (Skyfall, Gladiator, Penny Dreadful) who regards theatre as a more pure and rewarding medium, and surely understands the importance of timing. It’s his misfortune that Double Feature opens in the wake of Jack Thorne’s The Motive and the Cue, which covers some of the same territory with greater flair.

His play probably looked on paper like a commercial hit, a way for Hampstead to make up for the loss of its Arts Council grant. It won’t. And at a time when younger audiences feel alienated and priced out of theatre, I wonder if it’s wise to programme something so squarely aimed at smug, film-nerd baby boomers.

Hampstead Theatre, to March 16; book tickets here