Wed 25th May to Sat 28th May
Bette & Joan depicts the two famous Hollywood stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, in adjacent dressing rooms, between takes on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. While Joan manages her anxiety by lacing her Pepsi with vodka and signing photographs for her beloved fans, Bette chain smokes and muses on her lovelife, and her ability to pick a decent script, never a decent man.
Behind the bitching and the practical jokes we see each woman's insecurities and regrets, and their rivalry is revealed to be underpinned by grudging respect as they attempt to identify their new roles in life as well as in their careers.
The spontaneous applause that broke out in the Criterion Bar twenty minutes or so after the end of the first night's performance was telling. In had strolled the two actresses who had just given their all playing . . . well, two actresses who would argue that they had given their all to the silver screen. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were, needless to say, well rewarded for their performances during Hollywood's Golden Age. But both needed to earn money again when Warner Brothers offered them the chance to appear as the stars of the psychological thriller 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?' By that time it was 1962, the Golden Age had long gone and so had the assurance of comparatively youthful stardom. But, hey, here were two meaty roles for women - the sort of opportunity that professional female 'actors' of a certain age would argue are all too rare well over 50 years on. Between takes, mind you, Bette and Joan were parked on a 'back lot' where Warners churned out their B movies. Anton Burge's 2011 play is set in the adjacent dressing rooms of the two has-beens. The studio setting of the Criterion's production emphasises the sheer sparseness of it all, the lack of make-up artists, dressers and flunkeys. The only bright lights in Judy Talbot's set design are around the mirrors on the edge of small, cluttered tables. Staring into those mirrors at regular intervals, usually to apply yet more make-up, only seems to magnify the insecurities that both women are all too evidently feeling. Both try to alleviate the symptoms by sucking on something - cigarettes in Bette's case, Pepsi laced with vodka in Joan's. Anne-marie Greene is totally believable as Joan Crawford, the name she uses even when referring to herself, as if to remind us of the days when it was up in lights alongside so many of the actors that she has slept with over the years. And Cathryn Bowler is suitably irascible as Bette, as if trying to get into the role of the controlling one who keeps her sister prisoner in a wheelchair. Under layers of make-up, her face contorts into hatred of the woman in the room next door whom she regards as inferior in every way. Through lipstick as red as a nasty gash, she lets rip with some of the play's best lines and makes the most of them. Doreen Belton's direction evidently encouraged both actresses bring out the complexities of their characters with performances that richly deserved the applause in the theatre and, indeed, in the bar afterwards.
Bette and Joan is at the Criterion until Saturday and all seats are sold.
Bette and Joan, Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry, until May 28. Running time 2 hours.
Two of the Criterion Theatre's best known actresses take on the roles of two of Hollywood's best known screen legends, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Set at the start of the 1960's when the careers of both movie stars are on the wane, this play by Anton Burge offers a spiteful, witty, well-researched portrait which I'd personally put money on not being very far from the truth. The play reflects on what might have happened when the divas came together on a back lot at Warner Brothers to film 'Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?' released in 1962. The film offers a particularly unflattering role for Bette, played with divine malice by Cathryn Bowler. And things aren't much better in the opposite dressing room - or undressing room - for suspender snapping Joan, a part relished by Anne-marie Greene as she rejoices in lines about changing the locks and toilet seats between husbands, but otherwise working hard to remain on good terms. Indeed in a saccharine-sweet way Joan tries to remain "friends" with everyone. Not that this gets in the way of her wearing a secret belt of weights under her dress to upset the more classically-trained and arrogant Bette, who has to bend down and lift her out of a wheelchair. Bette knows that getting the two "oldest old bags" in the business together could be big box office and a third Oscar. Joan wouldn't mind a second. Above all both need the money and the attention. As an audience we watch as they don make-up, change clothes, smoke cigarettes, mix vodka with Pepsi and individually look back on their careers and the famous men they married or might have married. It's compelling stuff, superbly directed by Doreen Belton and practically faultless on the part of two terrific actresses with day jobs - one of them a professor! You'll be lucky to get a ticket
Barbara Goulden *****