19 May 2011

Bette and Joan - Arts Theatre, Tuesday 17th May 2011


Both at low points in their previously stellar careers, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford accept parts in a low-budget "schlock-horror" film called Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  In their backstage dressing room between takes, Davis and Crawford trade insults and memories of their days as Hollywood A-list stars.  Of course, what they don't yet know is that the film will propel them both back into the limelight......

Bette Davis: Greta Scacchi
Joan Crawford: Anita Dobson

Creative Team:
Writer: Anton Burge
Director: Bill Alexander

“Blaaa-anche! I didn't bring your breakfast, because you didn't eat your din-din!”

It’s a rite of passage. Watching Joan Crawford and Bette Davies slinging insults at each other in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and then slinging quotes from it around in the pub with your mates. What never fails to surprise me about WHTBJ is that both Crawford and Davies were really on their uppers, financially and professionally, when the film was made in 1962. Neither expected it to be an enormous, camp gothic hit which would propel both of them back into the limelight and restore their professional status and their bank balances. One wonders whether the irony of this has occurred to Anita Dobson and Greta Scacchi – what we have here are two – lets be frank – slightly faded actresses playing two slightly faded actresses. Bette and Joan, however, isn’t really going to set their professional worlds alight again, for all that this is an enjoyable, high-camp evening at the Arts Theatre, who seem to specialise in faded stars doing high-camp evenings.

It’s an interesting piece, full of flaws. There are far too many “asides to the audience” moments for the evening to feel completely comfortable; my Him Indoors For The Evening said that it was, at times, like listening to someone reading all the good bits aloud from the book “The Divine Feud”, at the expense of the two actresses actually engaging with each other in dialogue. When there is dialogue, its patchy and uneven, and the play fails to catch fire until after the interval. Its only then that the true pain of Davis’ situation and the major flaws in Crawford’s character are revealed (OK, lets face it, the woman was an out and out lunatic). But because the second act also contains the most physical action and the most laughs, it feels as if rather too much has been crammed into too short a length of time. Act one, by contrast, feels slow and static; the play is distinctly off-balance.

The small stage of the Arts Theatre makes the direction cramped and slightly clunky; Dobson has to contend with a wheelchair, a canvas backed “director’s chair” and a make up stool cluttering up her half of the stage; I’m sure that the wheelchair, at least, could have been off-stage for most of the evening and simply wheeled on when necessary. The rather literal set, with a dressing room occupying each half of the stage, could have been somewhat more inventive – perhaps designed on the diagonal.

Both actresses try their darndest to capture the accents and speech rhythms of their character, but neither is truly successful, both slipping and sliding away from vocal accuracy. What is scary, however, is the physical resemblance that both acheive; when Scacchi finally pulls on her pale blond wig, she IS Baby Jane Hudson.

Bette and Joan is never going to set the world alight. It is what it is – and that’s all it is. There’s little psychological depth and far too much deadpan reminiscing dressed up as dialogue. But it’s a fun show for all its flaws and missed opportunities; great for a camp evening out with your buddies and just the thing to send you back to the original film with a shiver of gothic delight. 
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