Review: Bette and Joan (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, June 2nd)

The feuding and rivalry that provided the backdrop for an iconic movie from the 1960s is brought to the stage with style and plenty of laughs in Anton Burge’s great play Bette and Joan, which finishes a short national tour at Brighton this week.

Wednesday, 30th May 2012, 2:33 pm

The star dressing rooms of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during the filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane are the setting for a series of hilarious and sometimes heart-wrenching monologues about the lives and loves of two Hollywood greats generally regarded as being well past their sell-by date at the time. The unglamorous film comedy thriller would either revive faded careers or drive a final nail into their coffin.

Born in the same year (though Bette always insisted she was five years younger than Joan) the intense dislike of the two actresses for one another – probably resulting from jealousy, given their personal and professional lives - is legendary, and this clash of titanic personalities is portrayed in bitchy, camp, and glorious style in Burge’s well-observed piece.

The withering remarks made by each about the other are captured perfectly in this glorious two-hander with Greta Scacchi and Anita Dobson, as is the golden age of Hollywood, with a wince of regret at the passing of the way things were and of the characters whose real lives were often more colourful than anything portrayed on the silver screen.

Both actresses are superb in their roles, though Greta Scacchi has a slight edge in that she looks and sounds so much like Davis that you sometimes think the star is alive and well on stage. Her transformation into the ghoulish Baby Jane Hudson as she prepares for her film role is amazing and terrifying, but she succeeds in getting beneath the monster to unearth a personality that might almost be described as warm.

Sipping her vodka-laced Pepsi , displaying a tendency to be a control freak, and weighing herself down with lead balls on a belt for a lifting scene to exacerbate her co-star’s back problem, Anita Dobson’s Crawford comes across as more vicious and less likeable. She makes the most of the juicy role but seems a shade on the glamorous side for the icy and malicious Joan – though she can certainly smile and smile and be a villain.

In a way it is a shame that the script doesn’t allow the infamous lifelong animosity between the two stars to spill over into more of a confrontation in Bill Alexander’s nicely unhurried production – there are only a couple of scenes where the pair meet face to face – but the two actresses manage to draw out the contrasts between “hag and slag” perfectly as well as drawing out some of the darker truths behind the tempestuous relationship.

David Guest