There was a moment in the BBC’s rather one-note Hitchcock biodrama, The Girl, in which a tortoise-like, prosthetic-laden Toby Jones, playing the great director, repeatedly hurled live birds towards Sienna Miller’s immaculate ice-blonde head. Jammy Voo do something similar in Birdhouse, flinging ideas at the audience like winged things which flap and bat and peck at you without settling, without coming into land.
The initial premise presents us with a group of tweedy middle aged women, all dressed in guano-spattered vintage jackets and calf-length skirts, who have taken shelter in the Coronet cinema in the besieged Bodega Bay and are watching the events of Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds, play out from the periphery. In later scenes they also use Du Maurier’s unexplained bird-black cloud as a metaphor for a more general sense of terror, of the unknown, of violence raining from the sky.
Both of these ideas are intriguing: their waltzing with such an iconic film and their tentative exploration of the power of nightmares. But both seem only to have been brushed against in what is more akin to a curious cabaret with musical accompaniment provided by a man in a popcorn booth. The songs are rather beautiful and the lo-fi shadow puppet sequences which pepper the show have real charm – particularly one in which a series of shadowy telegraph poles roll past a car windscreen brilliantly recreating the effect of rear-projection footage in an old movie – but there’s a disconnected, half-formed feel to the piece as a whole.
From an aesthetic point of the view the show is appealing and delightfully inventive. There’s a game show sequence in which two of the women are obliged to answer questions about collective nouns while a third arranges tiny black pegs on a clothes line above a model of the Brenner house. Sometimes the effect of the show is unsettling – when eggs emerge from their mouths or a crow jams its glinting beak into a woman’s eye – sometimes it’s just odd. There’s also quite a bit of bird puppetry, both of the shadow and feathered variety, some spectacular birds’ nest hair-dos and a fair bit of general Lecoqing about.
Structurally the piece feels like a thematically connected series of sketches with an ornithological obsession. Much of what these are funny and playful; the piece’s riffing on the language of 1960s cinema is witty and the songs are superbly executed, but it remains an opaque and distant thing, and the idea of transposing Hitchcockian dread to a contemporary world, the social spread of anxiety and paranoia, is only ever teasingly examined.