Review: ‘Birdhouse’

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds often feels like one of those cinematic classics that’s more talked about – or vaguely known about – than actually watched on its own terms. Picked over by everyone from secondary school drama students to Slavoj Žižek, it’s now a virtual museum piece of twentieth-century American culture: I’m slightly ashamed, but probably not alone in admitting, that though I’m more than aware of its existence and basic premise, I’ve never actually watched it from end to end.

The time would seem right, then, for some kind of postmodern reimagining just over half a century on: an interpretation which picks up what are by now its tropes and clichés with a knowing wink and recycles them into something which speaks afresh to Millennial anxieties. And this is exactly what Jammy Voo Productions – a quartet of actors trained at the Lecoq school of physical theatre in Paris, and now based in deepest darkest Devon – set out to do with Birdhouse, which played at Oxford’s Old Fire Station this week.

The initial impression when the lights went up, however, was neither that of Bodega Bay in 1963, nor of some kind of Anytown, Anywhere 2015 comic horror backdrop. Instead, the four women dressed in pastel-coloured flannel suits with gigantic horn-rimmed glasses and extravagantly dishevelled perms embodied an aesthetic somewhere between that of Tubbs from The League of Gentlemen and the old ladies who huddled in corners of seafront cafes in Herne Bay circa 2000. (Though perhaps, as a native of that neck of the woods myself, the mere sight of [seagull?] feathers and chalky-white spatters of guano was enough to set off some kind of Proustian rush of associations.)

Dispensing with any semblance of a conventional linear plot, the play consists of a series of loosely interconnected scenes, tableaux and monologues revolving around the themes of fear, longing, and (dis)possession. All were neatly tied together by subtle references to Hitchcock’s original, by Greg Hall’s (billed simply as ‘The Popcorn Man’) live score, and by the symbolism of the deftly-controlled bird puppets (neither lovebirds nor seagulls, but mangy-looking crow-like beasts) which peck away at the characters’ clothes, loom over their shoulders, and generally lend an air of gloom and decay to proceedings. There were some excellent (and downright entertaining) pieces of physical work on display: from the moment when the cast turned their backs to the audience a few minutes in to reveal the birds’ nests concealed in their hair, to the absurdly absurdist tableau in which they somehow ejected painted gulls’ eggs from their mouths spelling out the word F–E–A–R.

Despite its seemingly timeless (or at least decaying 1960s time-warp) setting, the production also managed to weave in some convincing references to contemporary anxieties, and to the experience of being anxious in 2015. The scene in which four grown women stood around a dolls’ house, fantasising about an unreachable domestic life (“Woof, woof!” — “No, the dog doesn’t bark: it gets along well with the children”) seemed to speak directly to Generation Rent and its culturally ingrained, yet increasingly unrealisable, dream of home ownership. There was also a fabulous send-up of the more platitudinous and commercialised end of the whole Mindfulness/CBT/self-help enterprise, in response to which one of the characters shrieks “The worst is when they tell you not to worry … AND … RELAX!!”.

Where this production fell a little flat, however, was perhaps in its attempt to do slightly too much with its limited resources. Running at less than an hour, there was little time for the various themes and fragments to develop into much more than just an entertaining, intriguing smörgåsbord of sketches (and, occasionally, excellently-executed musical items). At the Edinburgh Fringe, where the show premièred, the format might have worked well; as a touring theatre piece, it ultimately felt a little lacking in substance (and length). The production also didn’t transfer wholly satisfactorily to the venue. Although the sound design worked perfectly, and it was a real testament to the quality of the props and puppets and the performers’ skill in manipulating them that they remained convincing at such close range, there were several moments in which a spotlight was shone directly and uncomfortably into my face, and such an intimate staging (performers on the ground, with minimal lighting and set) didn’t quite successfully create the cinematic effect which seemed to be being aimed for. Birdhouse was an excellently conceived, written, and performed production, but one which left its audience wanting perhaps a little too much more.

Owen Hubbard

For more information about upcoming shows at the Old Fire Station, please visit their website.

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