The audience for Bette and Joan is being seated as the five minute call is heard for Miss Davis and Miss Crawford. Moments later the three minute call goes out for the Arts Theatre audience itself. This juxtaposing of the realities of 2012 and of fifty years before sets the scene for a play in which everything is in two parts.
Anton Burge’s Bette and Joan unfolds the fingernails-and-blackboard relationship between the ageing Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who, finding that they are no longer attracting glamour roles, fight back by collaborating (on the surface, at least) on the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? described by Burge as a ‘low-budget, high-risk shocker.’
The stage set is as divided as the opinions of the two divas, the entire play taking place in their two dressing rooms, which, like the characters, are contrasting in style yet share much in common. The front of the stage becomes the back of the film studio, and we are aware that behind that, there is another backstage in which Anita Dobson (Crawford) and Greta Scaachi (Davis) retire from one dressing room to another.
Dobson begins with a lengthy monologue, delivered in the Crawford drawl and vinegared with acerbic one-liners. Speaking of her four husbands (something Davis also had) she says unemotionally ‘When they leave I change the locks and the toilet seats.’
The drawl serves as a great contrast to Scaachi’s entrance. Just as Davis’s appearance in the film was about as unattractive as it is possible to get, Greta Scaachi earns full marks for daring to appear in such a physically unappealing guise – her underwear and costume would give Gok Wan his greatest challenge – and for throwing herself into the coarseness of the role. Referring to her decision never to marry again, one of her cleaner declarations is ‘I’m zipping it all up’. The expression of distaste on Dobson’s face is priceless.
Act I is largely bitching and jibing on each side of the dressing room wall, Davis and Crawford not meeting until half way through. The pace is samey and the Dobson drawl begins to pall – though maybe that is the intention. The act ends with Crawford donning a weighted belt to make it harder for Davis to lift her in a forthcoming scene.
Act II opens with Davis’s response. ‘I had to drop her’ she says regretfully.
The second act lifts the pace a little, and also the veil on the two women, particularly Davis. We see her genuine shock as she looks at herself in the mirror; her voice and manner alter completely on the phone to her mother (the most important person in her life) and swearing bitch becomes vulnerable child when recalling the father that deserted her. It is difficult to decide whether it is Crawford or Dobson who fails to reveal quite so much of the Crawford character. With Crawford, it was all a poor act anyway – ‘A star she is, but an actress, never’ affirms Davis.
Anton Burge has clearly done extensive research on the two women, but there is something lacking. I found I welcomed the contrast of a male voice calling the stars to the set. The role of Crawford gives Anita Dobson some opportunities for the impersonation of others and for graceful arm gestures, and at these moments her abilities show. But for me she was wrongly cast as Crawford. Wallis Simpson – now that would be another story. Some director is missing a trick there.