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Tuesday, 31 May 2011

'Bette and Joan' at The Arts Theatre

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, two names that conjure up images of beauty, glamour and theatrical glory - both women played important roles in Hollywood history. Anton Burge’s new play ‘Bette and Joan’ shows these two iconic figures in the midst of their comeback film in 1962 Hollywood, "What ever happened to Baby Jane?" Both are nervous to be appreciated, Joan is desperate "to be liked" while Bette is obsessed with her success as a dramatic actress.

The set is carefully arranged, two adjacent dressing rooms sit with an all important mirror on the wall separating the two actresses. This significantly places the women opposite each other, so at times they are literally staring at one another, almost as reflections, and yet the contrast between the dressing rooms' decor shows their obvious differences in character. Factually Bette and Joan were very alike: both were born after the turn of the twentieth century, both married four times, both were Aries, both were adopted children, both were abandoned by their fathers and the list goes on. However after Crawford’s death Davis was frequently caught saying “we had absolutely nothing in common.” In this play their similarities and differences are explored by Burge throughout.

On stage Crawford is in the dressing room to the right, all glitz and glamour - ostentatious flowers, frocks and jewels, velvet dressing gown, and the all important pepsi filled fridge. Davis, on the left is more of a free spirit, throwing her shoes off in her plain bare room, and smoking constantly while applying her haughty character's make up and generally making a mess.

Both actresses, Anita Dobson as Crawford and Greta Scacchi as Davis, give polished performances, producing impressively nuanced depictions of these great women. It helps that Scacchi looks alarmingly like the real Bette Davis, and with the melodramatic mannerisms is hilariously convincing. Dobson reminded me instantly of a younger "Dot" from Eastenders, all pinched smile and delicate features. Crawford’s clever conniving is played with a devilish humour, and yet she is equally brilliant acting out the sickly sweet side to the actress' character.

The script is dominated by a slanging match between the women, yet a glimmer of friendship is evident towards the end when the girls giggle together bitching about the younger actresses, "like that slag Monroe," who have stolen their limelight. Unfortunately I was rather distracted in the second half by pulsating, blaring music above the theatre, threatening to spoil the mood. And it doesn’t help that the seats at the Arts Theatre are rather uncomfortable, after nearly three hours of viewing I was longing to get up.

‘Bette and Joan’ is an illuminating insight into the lives of two of the greatest screen stars; we frequently see iconic photographs, but never before has such an intriguing and touching ‘behind the scenes’ story been revealed.

Continues until Saturday 25 June, book here.

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