Bette and Joan – that’s Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, not Bette Bourne and Joan Collins, alas – occupy adjacent dressing rooms on the Hollywood set during the shooting of their come-back movie in 1962, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
They bitch and reminisce in the guise of Anita Dobson as Joan and Greta Scacchi as Bette, and this goes on for two hours. Some of it’s funny, most of it’s not, and you’re soon pining for something far more camp and outrageous, perhaps a little audience participation.
The famous feud only prospered in the absence of the other party, so there’s no interaction whatsoever in Anton Burge’s play, which is a scissors and paste job on the cuttings and biographies, dutifully and dully directed by Bill Alexander, and served up at the Arts with a certain amount of low level razzmatazz but zero momentum.
Scacchi gets the drawl and the bite of Davis, and a vague physical resemblance, but not the trademark scowl, or the idiosyncratic beauty of one of the greatest actresses of all time. Dobson has fun with Crawford’s slow, husky burn and her vamp reputation; she was said to have slept with everyone on the MGM lot except Lassie.
When it’s clear that the show’s going nowhere, Burge spoons in a few paragraphs of home life detail, but that’s not what an audience wants to hear, really. Davis harbours her long devotion to William Wyler, while Crawford keeps a flame for Clark Gable: “We loved each other through all our subsequent marriages.”
In the end, the show’s far too nice for its own good. It needs an injection of the late, great Charles Pierce, perhaps a scene or two from the movie itself, a fight in the wheelchair that sits ominously in the corner, or a surprise fantasy twist.
Both ladies strip decorously down to their lingerie, but the temperature never rises. At which point, you start to ask the inevitable question: why are these dames speaking to us in the first place? The literal-minded design is by Ruari Murchison, the so-so lighting by David Howe and the imperceptible musical supervision by Brian May.