Conjuring up the old magic
Theatre - Sheridan Morley enjoys tributes to Alfred Hitchcock and Tommy Cooper
Terry Johnson's talent as a comic dramatist has always been rather surreal. This is the writer who brought Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein together in Insignificance, and Salvador DalI together with Freud in Hysteria. But even by his standards, Hitchcock Blonde is ambitious. It is also untidy, overlong, and confused about what it wants to achieve. But don't let that fool you - this is by far the most intriguing and enjoyable, if demanding, new play in town.
It has to be said that Johnson is far from being the first to worry about Alfred Hitchcock. There are at least a dozen books on my shelf that try to grapple with Hitchcock's strange sexual obsessions, all of which seem to involve glacial Grace Kelly lookalikes across almost a half-century, until the blonde ends up in the shower.
Johnson gives us his own version about an exhausted film professor and the unwilling student he has taken to a Greek island in the hope of sexual fulfilment, at the very least. As an inducement to the young woman, he offers the opportunity to discover the contents of long-lost reels of Hitchcock's first, unfinished, and therefore most seductive mystery. It is a discovery that exists only in Johnson's head but is none the less mysterious. As the professor, neither hero nor villain, David Haig gives a multilayered and carefully balanced performance. An impressive cast includes the statuesque and appropriately blonde Rosamund Pike - the former Bond girl showing here a much more subtle, one-dimensional sexuality, as demanded by Hitch. Only the wonderfully chubby William Hootkins goes for a realistic likeness of the director who reportedly said, "All actors are cattle." All the rest settle for being dumb if lethal broads and sinister hitmen straight out of a period thriller.
The real star of Hitchcock Blonde is the designer William Dudley. Here, as in Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia at the National, he has developed a scenic breakthrough even more dazzling than the silent film at the centre of this play. Put simply, Dudley makes three-dimensional video, or holograms, a stage possibility.
If Johnson had not directed this play, I suspect it would be at least an hour shorter, and about either Hitchcock's missing movie or the life of the disenchanted professor. But we should celebrate the courageous eccentricity of what Johnson as author and director has attempted to give us here: a Hitchcock film on-stage, and a celebration of the enduring influence of his cinema on all of us who still think twice about getting into a shower.
It all came flooding back with excruciating clarity - the terrible giggle, the splayed feet, the feeble jokes and the worse tricks - it's Tommy Cooper. No, it isn't. It's Jerome Flynn, from Soldier Soldier, doing Tommy Cooper. At the Garrick, directed impeccably by Simon Callow, is Jus' Like That, a loving tribute to the big man by the comedy buff John Fuller. Familiarity is everything here, or "10 per cent skill, 90 per cent cheek", as Tommy used to say, so here are all the oldies and occasional goodies, the well-known tricks as well as the even better-known jokes.
You couldn't explain Tommy Cooper to anyone under 30. Well see, kid, there's this huge, ungainly geezer wearing a fez and tails. He's got a face like a rearranged Ordnance Survey map, a chin like a shovel and a body like a spare piece of Stonehenge. What does he do? He's, well, sort of a conjurer, but not a very good one; he buys his tricks from a magic shop; and he tells jokes. Well, I call them jokes, but they wouldn't disgrace the average school playground except they're all clean.
The audience know exactly what to expect, and what is expected of them. They tell the jokes in unison with Flynn, wait for the tricks to go wrong, and roar when they inevitably do. The message here is clear - if you loved Tommy Cooper, you'll love Jus' Like That. The revelation is Flynn. His impersonation is uncanny. His timing, movement and appearance are impeccable. This entirely satisfying performance, in fact, may be the only problem. Tommy Cooper was a much darker, more complex person than we see here. Even in a dressing room sequence, we get no more than passing mentions of his alcoholism, his ambition (which left more than one body in his wake), his heartless treatment of his mistress and his wife, or his legendary meanness. Fuller's loving programme note leaves no doubt of his lifelong affection for the man he knew and the performer he admired, but his show would perhaps have deepened into a play with a little more objectivity and a little less adoration.
Hitchcock Blonde is at the Royal Court Theatre, London SW1 (020 7565 5000) until 24 May
Jus' Like That is at the Garrick Theatre, London WC2 (0870 890 1104) until 21 June