The usual way to show your admiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window is to dig out the DVD and watch it again. Young production company Off-Off-Off-Broadway have taken a more creative approach and created a theatrical homage. Their take on the film keeps the premise of a recuperating photographer spying on neighbours, but moves the action to 1920s Paris and changes James Stewart’s Jeff to Laura Louise Baker’s Tabitha.
First seen at Edinburgh earlier in the year, Back Door, written by Polis Loizou, has moved to the Tristan Bates Theatre on Tower Street. Eleanor Field’s set features a three-windowed wall which faces the audience and divides the stage in two. To the front is Tabitha’s flat where most of the action takes place. Art Deco features, period box cameras and a candlestick phone give some period detail, though the Paris of the time is mentioned rather than shown. Through the windows towards the back of the stage Tabitha’s new neighbour Violette sometimes appears, as though being glimpsed in her own flat across the street.
Tabitha is a forceful women, preferring to bark statements rather than speak in sentences, a style reminiscent of Alfred Jingle, that bane of Mr Pickwick’s life. Used to the excitement and intrigue of war reporting she is bored, forced to stay at home whilst a leg injury heals. A new neighbour piques her interest. Played elegantly by Jaacq Hugo, Violette is a delicate transvestite, earning a living by dancing in Parisian nightclubs and starring in silent films. Her first appearance, peering emotionlessly through the curtains of the central window reminds of another of Hitchcock’s works, the early silent film The Lodger, as do some of the black and white projections used at times within the performance.
The third character in the play, Tabitha’s toyboy John (played by Polis Loizou) admires Violette’s work, but any facts he recounts about her life are hazy – which is how Violette likes it. John Wesley has secrets of his own, not least why he has adopted the name of an 18th century cleric, but amongst the subterfuge Loizou gives him the playful air of a stress-free Dickie Greenwood.
Mirroring the way we think we know celebrities from a few articles in the papers and a couple of paparazzi snaps, Tabitha uses her brief glimpses of the famous dancer to build up her own image of Violette. Changing constantly, her theories about her neighbour’s life bear little resemblance to any actual facts, her mind racing through possibilities, mocking our habits of assumption and forcing us to reflect on how little we actually know about people.
Like the film, conclusions are jumped to. Here the mystery starts quickly, before the characters are really introduced. The play becomes a game played out in front of us. There are revelations, closer to home than expected, as Tabitha and John become involved in Violette’s story.We witness the power of disproportionate friendships, betrayal and the desire for more exciting, secret lives that we project onto the famous.
Back Door reminds that people and things cannot be pigeon-holed and are very often not what we think. Not just in the lives of famous Hollywood actors but also in the lives of friends we think we know well.
Hugo’s confused Violette lingers in the mind, differentiating the play and making it more than a pastiche. However choosing a film as well known as Rear Window as a framework means Back Door competes with memories of Hitch, Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly. That’s always going to be a tall order. Nevertheless Off-Off-Off-Broadway is an ambitious company and Back Door shows an ability to engage and have fun with the classics. Keep an eye out for their next offering.