Photo by Ralph Rapley
Review by Peter Brown
10 May 2011
In spite of having similar backgrounds and life-experiences, movie stars Joan Crawford and Bette Davis reputedly hated each other, engaging in a feud which has become the stuff of legend. The feud came to a head when the actresses were cast in a low budget feature called 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?' which went on to achieve huge box office success and has itself become a legend.
Anita Dobson takes on the role of Joan Crawford and Greta Scacchi plays Bette Davis in this new play by Anton Burge which focuses on the year 1962 when Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were shooting 'Baby Jane'. Two dressing rooms sit side-by-side on the stage and its from their respective inner sanctums that most of the action takes place.
Joan Crawford starts off the proceedings telling us that she is “one hell of a star” and how it's “wonderful to be a perfectionist”. She also tells us – repeatedly – that she 'has balls', and we certainly believe her. It's not long, though, before the bitchiness commences and the subject moves on from Ms Crawford's self-glorification to her derisory musings about her co-star. Then the action moves over to Bette Davis's dressing room and there's largely more of the same with Ms Davis calling Crawford a 'clothes horse', and saying that 'it's a matter of opinion if she's still alive'. And so it goes on while the two prepare to shoot a scene which requires Ms Davis to lift Ms Crawford. They rehearse, but after Ms Davis departs, Crawford dons a string of weights under her costume to make it harder for Davis to lift her, demonstrating that the feud was not simply confined to words.
There are times during the play when you would almost think that the real Bette Davis is standing delivering the lines. Greta Scacchi catches Ms Davis's intonation and clipped manner of speech quite brilliantly, though not entirely consistently. She's blunt, forthright and abrasive and there's the ever-present cigarette which seemed as much a prop for the real Ms Davis as it is here for Ms Scacchi. And when she transforms herself into Baby Jane, with blonde wig and elongated curls set against a deathly white face, the result is pretty scary. Anita Dobson also manges to get under the skin of Joan Crawford, producing an almost aristocratic Crawford with a sense of poisonous menace underlying a calm and controlled exterior. On balance, Ms Dobson has better and funnier lines, but both actors appear to be relishing their roles.
There's bitchiness aplenty in Anton Burge's script. Bette Davis tells us that Crawford 'slept with everyone on the lot, except Lassie'. Ms Crawford says Bette has 'always been difficult' due to a 'disorganised sex life'. All of this makes for considerable mirth, but the material hardly results in prolonged gales of laughter, rather intermittent breezes. If you were looking for a punch-up between these two mega stars you're in for disappointment. Apart from a fairly restrained confrontation in the second half, they're largely kept isolated in their dressing rooms, rather like boxers hurling abuse at each other from their corners. We do learn something of their private lives – the numerous marriages, the men they loved, the fathers who cast them aside, the dependants they had to support – but these insights are secondary to the feud and the bitching which is what I suspect most people will want to see.
What the popular press had to say...
"Certainly enjoyable in its camp and bitchy way, but finally fails to deliver the knockout dramatic blows that made the movie so memorable.."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Amiable if aimless new two-hander."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
"Bitching can be delicious when done with style...it is only a pity there is not more excavation of the emotional pain felt by these two icons."
Lyn Gardner for The Guardian
"Thoughtful, then, and tartly funny, but not earth-shattering"
Sarah Hemming for Financial Times