“Double Feature” at Hampstead Theatre

Neil Dowden in north London
21 February 2024

John Logan’s fascinating new play Double Feature is a close-up view of the shifting power dynamics between directors and actors in the movie business. It focuses on two such complicated couplings in the 1960s: the fraught relations between Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren during the making of psychosexual thriller Marnie; and a few years later Michael Reeves and Vincent Price entangled in the cult historical horror film Witchfinder General. Logan seems to suggest that powerful art can be created in spite of – or even because of? – conflict within this intimate relationship where each needs the other to achieve the best results on screen.


Jonathan Hyde and Rowan Polonski.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.


For Marnie all the power seems to lie with the director, Hitchcock, a hugely feted figure for many years in Hollywood whose movies were sold on his name rather than the actors’. And in this case Hitchcock had actually “discovered” Hedren, as a model appearing in a TV commercial, to make her a star in his previous film The Birds – but as we see his obsession with her as his “muse” became abusively controlling and led to sexual harassment. Under the pretext of rehearsing a sexual scene in his private quarters one evening, Hitchcock propositions Hedren by making her an offer he thinks she can’t refuse – or can she?

For Witchfinder General, in contrast, the boot appears to be on the other foot. The American veteran Price is the pulling star that the studio imposed on 24-year-old Englishman Reeves (who had already directed two low-budget horror movies) for his story about the real-life Matthew Hopkins who persecuted witches during the English Civil War in the 17th century. We see Price storming into Reeves’ rented house to tell him he is quitting after the director has repeatedly humiliated him in front of the crew by instructing him to tone down his hammy acting. But after Reeves has apologized and begged him to stay, with an underlying homoerotic tension, they read through a scene again as Price begins to have second thoughts.

With much subtlety, Logan shows that each relationship is not as one-sided as might appear from the relative status of the protagonists. Interestingly, both the stars were not the directors’ first choices – Hitchcock tried to bring his former favourite cool blonde Grace Kelly out of retirement, but as Princess of Monaco she was not allowed to do so, while Reeves had wanted Donald Pleasence for the leading role but was overruled for commercial reasons. Despite, this, whilst embroiled in fights with the directors, Hedren and Price both produced stand-out career performances.

But Logan also points to a crucial variance. Hedren ultimately walks out on Hitchcock, freeing herself from his suffocating grip but also ruining her film career (he refused to release her from their personal contract for several years). However, the cultured Price – who was an art collector and gourmet chef – recognizes the truth of what Reeves says about his recent trashy output and planned to make another film with him, but the latter died of an accidental drug overdose just over a year later.


The ensemble.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.


Logan cleverly intertwines the two collaborations to suggest parallels – as well as differences – between them as the pairs occupy the stage at the same time without being aware of each other. Switching seamlessly between them with some overlapping dialogue, actions and words are sometimes echoed – indeed at one moment they are all seated at the same table eating their own food. In Jonathan Kent’s entertaining, fluid production, Anthony Ward’s rustic-style, timbered kitchen/living room design represents both the Suffolk cottage that Reeves is staying in on location and the bungalow on the Universal lot that Hitchcock has had made-over to resemble an English country residence, while lighting designer Hugh Vanstone’s alternates the spotlight between the two pairs.

The cast all look the part as their respective characters. As Price, the goatee-bearded Jonathan Hyde first appears as a menacing silhouette banging on the window outside as a thunderstorm rages like in one of his gothic B-movies. With his stentorian baritone and make-up-enhanced face, he cuts a forbidding figure with a whiff of S&M as he orders Reeves to get on his knees, but later softens when he see the young man’s vulnerability and (unlike Hitchcock with Hedren) does not attempt to exploit him sexually. Rowan Polonski also impresses as the precociously talented Reeves whose vision can entail arrogance but who underneath is a hotchpotch of neuroses, hinting at a life and career that would be cut short of its prime.

Ian McNeice has captured Hitchcock’s plummy drollness without doing an impression of the larger-than-life film-maker, while also exuding a pathetic sleaziness. His pursuit and moulding of Hedren (choosing exactly what she wears) is reminiscent of James Stewart’s disturbing fixation on Kim Novak in Vertigo. In a poised performance, dressed in a beautiful ice-blue suit, Joanna Vanderham conveys Hedren’s unease in Hitchcock’s presence, but also her steel in eventually standing up to him. Hitch may be the “master of suspense” who likes to storyboard every move, but it is Hedren who ends up directing him as she exits calling out, “That’s a wrap.”

As a highly successful Hollywood screenwriter himself (including working on the likes of Gladiator, Skyfall, and The Aviator), Logan evidently draws on much inside knowledge when it comes to exploring creative and personal clashes in the film world. But theatre is his first love, and Double Feature is another intriguing biographical play to add to others he has written such as the multi-award winning Red (about the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko) and Peter and Alice (about a meeting between the real people who inspired Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland). It also makes an interesting comparison with Jack Thorne’s The Motive and the Cue (recently transferred from the National Theatre to the West End) which dramatizes another tempestuous but ultimately triumphant director/actor relationship – but in the theatre rather than the cinema.