Bette and Joan

Anton Burge
Richmond Theatre

Bette and Joan Credit: Roy Tan
Bette and Joan Credit: Roy Tan

Anton Burge's Bette and Joan distils the famed, decades-long rivalry and antipathy between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis into a funny, sharp and surprisingly poignant two-hander. First seen at the Arts Theatre last year, Bill Alexander's highly enjoyable production now undertakes a national tour retaining its two original leading ladies (Anita Dobson as Crawford; Greta Scacchi as Davis), and is well worth catching wherever you can.

The conceit is simple but extremely effective. The two actresses are presented in their dressing rooms on the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962, reflecting, in dual monologues, upon their childhoods, the trajectory of their careers, their current "comeback" project, and, of course, their fraught relationship. The contrasts between the two women seem rather broadly drawn at first, with Scacchi's coarse, cussing, practical-minded Bette set against Dobson's artificial, gushing yet steely and passive-aggressive Joan.

But Burge's shrewd, lively writing subtly expands our perception of the two women as the piece unfolds. He doesn't deconstruct what we might think we already know about the feud, but he does deepen it, revealing the strange correspondences and connections in Crawford's and Davis's experiences, and fleshing out their characters without too much recourse to psychobabble.

There's the requisite amount of campery and bitchery of course (most of it very funny) yet the play goes deeper—and gets darker—than you might expect. The chillier, more confessional second half, in particular, delves into the more painful elements of the women's lives: Davis's frustrated romantic relationship with the director William Wyler; the impoverished background that Crawford has escaped. At times the tone is a tad too arch and knowing, but for the most part Burge has constructed a version of events that feels authentic enough. And from the specifics of the women's histories, the play broadens out into an incisive portrait of Hollywood and the challenges of being an ageing actress in a changing, fickle industry.

Speaking in an excellent approximation of Crawford's carefully modulated tones, Dobson works the audience with characteristic aplomb, hilariously revealing the constructedness of Crawford's gracious persona and her scary control-freakery as she extends the hand of friendship to her co-star and then sabotages her when she resists.

Scacchi matches her with a fresh, caustic performance, coarsening up her habitual delicacy to capture Davis's trademark characteristics without descending to the level of caricature. Together, Dobson and Scacchi turn this play into a memorable duet performance, inhabiting their roles with the palpable empathy, insight and glee of actresses playing actresses.

Touring to Bromley and Brighton.

Reviewer: Alex Ramon

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