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Bette and Joan (tour – Guildford, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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In a world of King Lears and Willy Lomans it is incredibly refreshing to see two women aged over 25 not only take centre stage, but storm it. Bette and Joan centres on the backstage rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford while they filmed the cult horror film What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? in 1962.

Playing these iconic roles are the modern powerhouses Greta Scacchi and Anita Dobson, who manage to recreate the essence of these silver-screen icons without ever becoming pantomimic.

Tension bubbles beneath the surface of Anton Burge’s smart and pithy dialogue and the audience are drawn into the role of an interviewer at a Press conference. Scacchi and Dobson ease us into the situation as they artfully dart along the dialogue. Director Bill Alexander]’s use of mirrored dressing rooms means that the action never stops, creating a delicious sense of intimacy and secrecy.

Scacchi crackles and pops her way through the action, busting balls whenever she spots weakness. She blazes on stage and is magnetic to watch. There is an odd parallel between Scacchi and Davis, as neither is afraid to get under the character’s skin and appear grotesque to convincingly convey the role.

Dobson’s Crawford is always “on”. She smiles and smoothly lies to the audience – rather as though it was from OK Magazine – which makes her spite towards Davis all the more disturbing. Dobson has the poise and beauty needed to play the fading star, and she manages to show the steely determination and control that Crawford was famous for.

You really believe that the poor assistant on the other end of the phone “will never work in Hollywood again” if Crawford’s room temperature isn’t adjusted. Ruari Murchison’s well-dressed set creates an intimate realm and David Howe’s lighting design is used to focus the audience’s attention on each of the characters, but avoids feeling like a tennis match.

There are truly horrifying moments when free-standing vintage stage lights illuminate each actress at their most raw and ugly as they spill their dark secrets. If we believe Davis when she says “an actor is something less than a man, an actress more than a woman”, then this play shows that when it comes to comic timing, angst and not-so subtle bitchiness, these broads have got buckets to spare.


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