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The Theatreguide.London Review

Bette And Joan
Arts Theatre       Summer 2011

You want a play about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford to be a campy bitchfest, and Anton Burge's new comedy certainly fits the bill.

It is a little disappointing that both the play and the performances in it are more adequate than brilliant, but there's still enough here to make for good dirty fun.

Burge catches the two Hollywood divas in their dressing rooms for the 1962 film What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? as they take turns wittily complaining about each other. 

(For those not in the know, this was something of a comeback for both stars who, at 54, were over the hill in Hollywood terms. The film is a psychological horror story of a mad former child star dreaming of a comeback while torturing her crippled sister. It's not a particularly good film, but has become something of a camp classic through its over-the-top-ness, and it did serve its purpose of kick-starting the stars' careers.).

Burge's script is something of a hybrid. While there are some scenes between the two women, most of the evening is devoted to alternating monologues in the mode of solo impersonation shows, with all the artifice (Who is she talking to? Why?) that involves.

At a few particularly clever moments Burge cuts back and forth between the two women, so that we get two versions of the same anecdote to good comic effect.

Skilfully directed by Bill Alexander to walk the thin line between characterisation and impersonation, this evening's actresses face the added challenge that both Davis and Crawford had created public personas.

So Anita Dobson and Greta Scacchi are, in effect, doing parodies of self-parodies.

Scacchi as Davis is marginally the more successful. Wisely avoiding all temptation to do a drag queen's broad cartoon Davis, she just picks up on hints of the original's speech patterns and body language, so we know it's Davis but can look beyond the surface.

Crawford had created a thin veneer of saccharine elegant graciousness over her icy core, and for a while Anita Dobson doesn't make it clear just who is flirting so hard with the audience, the character or the actress looking for laughs.

The playwright begins to run out of bitchy steam after the interval, and much of the second act turns more serious, as each character exposes a little more of what's beneath the shell, Davis's softness and Crawford's hardness.

Some may find this the most endearing and moving part of the evening ,though the comic energy does drop and there is a sense of masses of undigested research being dumped on us.

No, for all the effectiveness that sequence may have, nobody comes to this show looking for a sensitive deeper understanding of two troubled women.

We want a bitchfest, and while Burge and his actresses might have delivered more, they deliver enough to satisfy.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Bette And Joan - Arts  Theatre 2011


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