Bette and Joan
Anton Burge’s play (2011) is a taut two-hander exploring the famously stormy relationship between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. It is set in 1962, when they filmed, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, a phenomenally successful film which revived both their careers and, all importantly, “turned a profit” for Warner Brothers.
The two actresses ( I usually write/say “actor” but they wouldn’t have done) are on either side of the stage in their dressing rooms surrounded by costumes, props and personal belongings (set by Paul Doust). Upstage and up a few steps is a window and an area to suggest the film set itself.
We watch Donna Dawson as Crawford knitting and being sweetly feminine or pretending to be. Then Pauline Armour turns up, coarse, forthright and aggressive as Davis. There is a lot of well conveyed tension between the characters and professionally managed chemistry between two pretty competent actors.
We watch Armour converting herself into the hideously disturbing Baby Jane, a former child actress who now torments her paraplegic sister. She whitens her face, applies doll-like colour hides her hair and finally dons the scary ringletted blond wig – all the time talking sometimes in monologues, sometimes on the phone, and sometimes directly, bitchily to Crawford.
Dawson’s Joan is nicely over made up – eye shadow and lipstick trickling into the carefully constructed creases – as she tries to hide her fears, inadequacies and resentment of Davis behind a gentle mask suggesting sweetness. Actually, the point of the piece, is that she gives as good as she gets.
Both performances are engaging and the play is well directed (Scott James) but I found the accent work troubling. Davis came from New England (as she reminds us several times in this play). At the beginning, that’s how she sounds but it quickly wanes and soon there’s barely a trace of American left, let alone anything as nuanced as Massachusetts. If this was a directorial decision because accents are hard to sustain and after a while the audience won’t notice then I think it’s a mistake.
Crawford, on the other hand, came from Texas and started out as a dancer – which Davis can’t resist snobbily mentioning several times in Bette and Joan. Perhaps she ironed out the Texan drawl, Dawson gives her no trace of it. In fact, after a few minutes, like Davis, she barely sounds American and that feels odd.
And a final note: there is no point whatever in printing cast biogs in the programme in black on red in a font so tiny that it is totally illegible. Even in daylight with a magnifying class the next morning, I struggled and my sight, with glasses, is perfectly OK for all normal purposes.
First published by Sardines: https://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/review/bette-and-joan/