Bette and Joan

A new play by Anton Burge
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Anita Dobson as Joan Crawford Credit: Roy Tan
Greta Scacchi as Bette Davis
Face to face

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were very different characters but their lives had been running parallel for some time, and having reached an age when parts were now few and far between, the rivalry between them was intense.

“I wouldn’t give you a dime for those two washed-up old bitches” said studio boss Jack Warner, but in 1962 he took a chance and cast them both in the film Whatever happened to Baby Jane (a gamble which paid off as the film became a smash hit). Thrown together in their desperation for a part, their thirty-year feud ‘reaches boiling point’. With that in mind I had expected the dialogue to crackle with explosively witty and derogatory comments as the former stars faced each other, but in fact, in their two separate identical dressing rooms, they hardly meet and address all their remarks to the audience in what virtually becomes two monologues.

That’s not to say it isn’t funny, but quite low key with even the audience laughter rather subdued. Performances though are excellent with both actors bringing into play nuances, expressions and gestures which illustrate each character perfectly.

Joan Crawford (Anita Dobson) is determined to remain a glamorous star expecting her demands to be met. Believing “a woman should always be in control” and expecting to be treated as a lady, she purrs into the telephone with her insistence that the temperature on the set must be identical to that in the dressing room. Dobson has the most wonderful insincere ‘Cheshire Cat’ smile which contains a wealth of meaning, and there is no hesitation about stripping down to her underwear, and why should there be with her enviable body and great legs.

The two try to upstage each other at every turn, and Dobson’s conspiratorial smile to the audience is of pure malicious glee as she ties weights around her waist just before the scene where Davis has to lift her—no dialogue necessary!

Bette Davis (Greta Scacchi), on the other hand, is much more down to earth and realistic, regarding herself as “a working actress” and getting on with the job no matter how she looks in the part. Unrestricted by the ‘Joan Crawford’ modulated tones, her delivery is feisty and direct and the dialogue more honest—never as underhand or vicious as her rival but totally disparaging.

Underneath the brash exterior there is a lurking vulnerability in the two characters, with Davis feeling the heavy responsibilities of family and money worries and Crawford ‘wanting to be liked’, although not succeeding if her daughter’s book ‘Mommie Dearest’ is anything to go by, and perhaps more could be made of that aspect. With both actresses having passed the dreaded ‘forty’ mark, with potentially fewer roles available, the relevance of Bill Alexander’s production cannot have passed them by, but what makes this show really enjoyable is the fact that both are enjoying themselves immensely and we enjoy it with them.

Touring to Richmond, Bromley and Brighton.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor