BETTE AND JOAN
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 15th May, 2012
Anton Burge’s witty play is set during the filming of camp cult classic, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? the film that brought Hollywood royalty, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, together on screen. For most of the duration, we see the women separately in their respective dressing rooms. They bitch about each other and reminisce about their lives and the history and circumstances that have brought them to this day in 1962.
As Joan Crawford, Anita Dobson (EastEnders, PlayAway) gives a highly mannered performance, capturing Crawford’s affected speech patterns. She speaks as though her lines are all recitative, leading up to a great aria that never comes. She postures and preens, keen to show herself in the best possible light, all the while trash-talking her neighbour and professional rival. Dobson’s Crawford is almost other-worldly, taking factual elements (the plastic covers on the seats, the vodka in the Pepsi bottles) and showing us a strong but ridiculous woman, protecting herself from behind the fortifications of a facade: her public image. She punctuates her best lines with a grin The Joker would envy.
She is more than matched by Greta Scacchi’s Bette Davis. The portrayal is staggeringly good. The physical resemblance is stronger and the voice is spot on. It is a more grounded performance. Davis comes across as a real person – but this is not to degrade Dobson’s performance in the slightest. The two stars are depicted in this contrasting fashion to make a point. One is an actress, the other a movie star. The script is largely built from anecdotal monologues, cross-cutting from one dressing room to the other for humorous impact; the women’s take on the same events couldn’t be more different.
When they appear together in the same dressing room, the bitchiness reaches critical levels as they fire off one-liners at each other’s expense, two drama queens in a spat. It’s handbags at dawn stuff and very, very funny.
There is depth too as well as sniping and one-upmanship. We get a sense of Davis’s loneliness and come to understand Crawford’s affectations; she strove all her life to escape the taint of her humble upbringing in poverty and pornography.
They both seized upon …Baby Jane grateful for the chance to return to the silver screen, bewailing the fact that women of a certain age find the parts drying up (so to speak). You still hear it today, but what this play goes to show is the wealth of talent, skill and power actresses beyond the first flush of youth can bring to a production. I’m sure Scacchi and Dobson identify with their onstage counterparts’ gratitude for the opportunity to put their skills and talent to such entertaining and effective use.