BETTE AND JOAN
by Anton Burge.
Tour to 2 June 2012.
Runs 2hr 25min One interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 10 May at Royal & Derngate Theatre Northampton.
Slow-burn drama where the performances light the fire.
It was a hatred made in Hollywood heaven: the dancer and film star who hid her poor origins, and the conscious stage actress who made her unglamorous way, against the odds, to celluloid fame. Studio giantesses who came together, late in life, in Robert Aldrich’s macabre 1962 tale Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.
A film tying two complex women together, without focusing on sex and men, it’s also, with Sunset Boulevard and a few films since, a movie that depends on both protagonists being past the age of glamour.
That was an unusual position in Hollywood terms, filled with outsize star-quality by Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. And with a casting made in British theatrical heaven, the elegant Crawford, fine-shaped mature body suddenly flung open to the underwear (Joan’s method of introducing herself to a director, thereby establishing a certain authority), is played by Anita Dobson.
Her robed figure is feline fur, her posed smile suggests a challenging catlike hiss, while her voice pours elongated vowels and deep wells of concern with the quality of viscous double-cream. While Greta Scacchi’s Bette has vocal nails bared, scratching deep, never hiding her lack of glamour (it enables her to look truly ghastly as Baby Jane).
She has the artistic pride of the stage actor; it’s a point of pride that she rehearses. Then, as Anton Burge’s play turns increasingly into bio-drama and confessional, Davis’s private worries – money and family included – emerge.
The strong performances help disguise the play’s lack of any dynamite impact between these explosive temperaments, who are mostly kept in adjoining rooms. The plain wooden walls of Ruari Murchison’s set indicates their fallen fortunes, Crawford’s room coloured by flowers and a screen even for changing in private, while Davis inhabits a sparer spacer, with a clothes-rail and family photos.
Bill Alexander’s production marks their difference through soliloquies: Crawford always seems to address an audience, Davis confides in herself. And, despite the play’s restraint, Dobson and Scacchi lead towards a just conclusion: it’s Crawford we love, for all her awfulness; but it’s Davis who, for all her’s, we have to admire.
Joan Crawford: Anita Dobson.
Bette Davis: Greta Scacchi.
Director: Bill Alexander.
Designer/Costume: Ruari Murchison.
Lighting: David Howe.
Sound: Mark Dunne.
Wigs: Derek Easton.
Make-up consultant: Diana Estrada-Hudson.