Review – Bette & Joan

Bette & Joan by Anton Burge – Horizon Theatre– last night at the Orwell hotel and touring

Horizon Theatre specialise in small cast, compact little plays –( Wit, Duet for One, MAMIL) and this is another  – this time a two hander set in 1962 and featuring notorious screen legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

Both were icons in their day but by the early 60’s their careers were on the slide – so Crawford suggests a film script to Davis called ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane’. It goes on to become a box office hit – but the feuding and bitchiness between the two was also legendary and this play focuses on that aspect of their relationship as in adjacent  dressing rooms they get ready to shoot a scene.

I must admit to knowing little about the pair and never having seen this iconic film – and unfortunately Burge’s script doesn’t give you much background to work on. However, it does call for two strong actresses to play the women – and Petra Risbridger (Bette Davis) and Jayne Lindill (Joan Crawford) certainly rise to the challenge.

Jayne probably has the more rewarding of the two parts – as the script gives her more to work with and probably the best lines. Crawford is the calmer of the two – a woman in control of her emotions and her environment and who intends it to stay that way. She bitches – but in a much more refined and ladylike manner – all surface of course as she plots to get her own back on Bette’s scheming with the Director to put her off her stride.

Petra hits Bette all guns blazing and never really comes down from that. Its probably the fault of the writer but it would have been nice to have seen a bit more light and shade in her character. We sometimes see through the mask to Joan’s vulnerability but its hard to find that in Bette.

The play gets off to a rather slow start with two unnecessarily long opening songs – and takes a little while to get into its stride. But once there and the bitchiness is in full swing the lines are delivered with crispness and pace and there is plenty of movement from director Philip Steward to keep the interest as the women move about their dressing rooms getting ready to play their parts, both as their screen roles and as Hollywood icons.

Most of the performance is monologues out to the audience – some of it very cleverly written as the two women finish each other’s comments – or pick up on particularly brutal things they say to each other and throw them back with added extra venom. However the play lacks dramatic tension which again is a fault of the writer – and probably works best when the women occasionally confront each other.

There are some nice lines – and the girls squeeze as much humour as they can from the parts. We find out a bit about their backgrounds – the men they loved and lost, the films they enjoyed working on or didn’t – but I would have liked to have known a bit more about what made them tick and what happened to them after they made the film – but it did make me want to go home and watch it.

The play is in Hadleigh on Friday, Shotley next Wednesday and Thursday and Sproughton on Fri April 27th . Tickets can be had by ringing 07864084423

Suzanne Hawkes

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