Fringe Box



‘Bette and Joan’ – Yvonne Arnaud

Published on: 20 Mar, 2012
Updated on: 20 Mar, 2012

By The Stage Dragon

History and rumour tells us of the great filming rivalry between Bette Davies and Joan Crawford, perhaps partly fuelled by Bette Davies’ spurning of Joan Crawford’s amorous advances.

In this play we join Bette (Greta Scacchi) and Joan (Anita Dobson) in their dressing rooms, during the on-set filming of ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ a much needed comeback film for both of them. Joan was later overlooked at the Oscars, whilst Bette was nominated for the film.

Playwright Anton Burge offers us a window into this infamous Hollywood feud, chiefly played out in intercut monologues. Anita Dobson plays Joan Crawford with a deeply textured vocal rhythm that perfectly exemplifies her character’s saccharine sweetness and deep affectation of glamour. Greta Scacchi revels in the role of Bette Davis – exuding a down-to-earth physicality and uncommonly acerbic wit.

Greta Scacchi (left) and Anita Dobson in 'Bette & Joan'

Perhaps due to Crawford’s naivety, the playtext finds more dramatic action in her character’s continued self-delusion, compared to Davis’ rose-smelling clarity. But each actress ensures that this double-hander plays two equally strong hands.

Burge successfully captures the two actress’ biographies without forcing a deluge of expositional history at the audience. Yet, he still manages to texture the limited setting with the actress’ own witty quotations, amongst comedy of his own.

Like many strong biographical pieces, we witness one historical event on stage, but – this coming at the autumn of Davis’ and Crawford’s careers – each character also takes plentiful opportunity to reflect on their own life.

Ruari Murchison’s set is used brilliantly to serve the purposes of the writing: the wall dividing the two opposing dressing rooms uses a “shared” mirror as its centrepiece; as each actress delivers snippets of monologue, whilst adjusting their own make-up, they are also staring blankly across the divide, focussing their rivalry.

Anita and Greta share a joke during rehearsals

Bill Alexander’s direction is one of subtle control and nuance, that never imposes on the play, but instead channels the two performances unselfishly. Small details – Crawford wipes the earpiece of her phone after hearing Davis swear down the line – indicate careful attention to detail.

Enjoyable, no doubt, to fans of a bygone Hollywood era, whilst also providing ample interest for the uninitiated, in this infamous history of rivalry.

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