The setting could hardly be more appropriate. Leaving behind the cheerful bustle of the Curtains Up pub in Barons Court, we descend a narrow flight of stairs towards a small, dark basement theatre, inside which the familiar Psycho theme music can be heard. As we take our seats, we discover a dead body on the floor, and as the lights go down, an instantly recognisable figure steps on to the stage.
So begins Hitchcock Homage, a play written and directed by Nick Pelas, and loosely based on the 1948 movie Rope. Two lovers have killed a man, seemingly for no obvious reason, and hidden his body inside a chest. While Beth (Grace Carmen-Davis) is ice-cool, Claudia (Francesca Mepham) can’t quite decide if she’s turned on or terrified by what they’ve done, and the pressure is beginning to get to her. The two plan to host a party for friends and family of the victim, at which snacks will be arranged on the very chest in which the dead man, Nick, is concealed. But as the party gets underway, it becomes clear that old schoolmate Roberta Fox (Roxanne Douro) is the true guest of honour…
As in the movie, which is famous for appearing to be one single continuous shot, all the action in Pelas’ play takes place in Beth and Claudia’s apartment. Because of this, the opening scenes feel a little clunky, as many of the characters – including Hitchcock himself (David Parry) – enter one by one to briefly establish who they are and their role within the story, and it’s a relief when the party begins and the action can start to flow more seamlessly.
Pelas’ tribute to the ‘master of suspense’ includes plenty of references to Hitchcock’s work, including cameo appearances from the man himself and a twist ending. And if there’s not a huge amount of suspense in the traditional sense, the murder already having been committed before the play begins, there’s nonetheless plenty of tension – both social and sexual – in the intensely awkward gathering of several distinctly unloveable characters. There’s the friend who’s only interested in making connections (Kitty Kelly), the guest who drinks too much and refuses to give straight answers to a question (Cath Humphrys), the shameless flirt (Shaun Dicks), the surly maid (Daniela Mansi); even the victim, we soon learn, wasn’t a particularly nice guy. Only Bentley (Yasser Kayani), with his clumsy attempts to woo Roberta and apparently genuine concern for his brother’s welfare, and – to a certain extent – Claudia, who gradually unravels as the play goes on, inspire any kind of sympathy. This assortment of unsavoury characters makes the whole idea of the party less sadistic and shocking than it might perhaps otherwise have been; after a while we almost want someone to find the body, just to see what they’ll do.
The other side effect of the gathering is that both story and stage become a bit crowded, and it starts to be difficult to keep track of who’s who and the relationships between them. It’s clear that several of them go way back, a fact that proves in at least one case to be key to the motivation at the heart of the story. While the cringeworthy social interactions are fun (I particularly enjoyed Ken and Layla’s insightful movie criticism), it would have been great to spend a little more time exploring these dysfunctional relationships in greater depth, to help us better understand both the events of the play and its disturbing conclusion.
Nick Pelas’ enthusiasm and admiration for Hitchcock’s work is clear throughout the play, and while some of the references may perhaps be lost on non-aficionados, the story also stands on its own as an exploration of the lengths human beings will go to in order to be accepted. The plot might date from the early 20th century, but in an age where few of us can do anything without immediately taking to social media to let our friends (and others) know about it, the story is still very relevant – much like Hitchcock himself, whose influence will undoubtedly live on for many years to come.
Hitchcock Homage is at Barons Court Theatre until 12th June 2016.