Bette and Joan (review)

Bette & Joan. Photo by Elliott Franks.
Bette & Joan. Photo by Elliott Franks.
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THERE have always been monstrous personalities in Hollywood from the megalomaniac directors to the kings and queens of the screen who scratched and clawed their way to the top and had no intention of relinquishing their crowns.

But age, no matter how much Botox or plastic surgery they endure, eventually puts paid to the best careers, each line on their face equating to less lines in the script – until one day the great names in movie-making are reduced to walk on parts and guest cameos in TV soaps.

Bette & Joan, which is now touring after appearing at the Royal & Derngate is a story about two aging actresses trying hard to hang on to their status and dignity. It’s as apocryphal for today’s working women as it was for Bette Davis and Joan Crawford back in the 1960s when it looked as though their glorious careers were over.

The pair, who never liked each other or their style of working (Davis insisting that, as she was stage-trained, she was a real actress while Crawford was simply a movie star) were long since past their prime when they were cast in a little-known shlock horror film, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?

Shunted off the lot where the A list films were made, and onto a back lot, there really were no high expectations for the low budget movie - only, to everyone’s surprise, it became a huge hit and, for a brief moment, put the names of two of the toughest old dames in the business back in lights.

Playing Bette and Joan are two actresses who are more than aware of the vagaries of fame. In the 1980s/90s Greta Scacchi was seriously sexy crumpet, frequently hired to whip off her clothes and drape herself around the arm of a leading man.

Anita Dobson enjoyed life in EastEnders but, Strictly Come Dancing aside and moving in with the talent from Queen, has struggled to maintain leading lady status.

What this engrossing production shows is what incredibly talented stage actresses they both are and the screen’s loss is the stage’s gain.

Both have matured in age and have now grown into the skins of good character actors. Scacchi is splendid as “Battling Bette”.

Much of the performance is told in monologues to the audience, each veteran star giving an account of her career, her relationships and her fears. There’s bitchiness and comedy, insight and pathos.

Scacchi’s Davis puts the star’s earthy personality loudly on show. She’s dazzling and, physically, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the old broad.

Dobson has the misfortune to not look like Crawford in any shape or form. In fact she looked eerily like Angie Watts with a laid-back US accent. Despite this she musters an Oscar-winning turn as a diva of the old school.

It’s a riveting insight into the film business, seen through the eyes of two of its most famous faces. Catch it at a theatre near you.

ANNE COX