Appearing like an apparition in a West End otherwise full of transfers from places like Hampstead (Good People), the Almeida (1984 and the upcoming transfer of King George III), the Tricycle (Handbagged) or the National (Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time), Bakersfield Mist is that rare thing: an original play, not based on a film, to originate there without the benefit of a prior subsidised try-out.
It was, however, previously produced at a small theatre in LA called The Fountain, where playwright Stephen Sachs is co-artistic director and directed its premiere. Now it has been glammed-up considerably for its West End arrival, with two fine actors who've graced theatrical stages on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as each having an extensive body of screen credits.
They are Kathleen Turner, two-times Tony nominee for her Broadway appearances in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (subsequently reprising the latter in the West End), and Ian McDiarmid, former co-artistic director of London's Almeida Theatre and a Tony winner on Broadway for Brian Friel's Faith Healer.
But though each are undeniably classy turns, their very presence overloads the play which is too slight and improbable to warrant such luxury casting. They are also forced to rely on an old repertoire of familiar tricks and ticks to try to bring it to life, but which only serve to accentuate the play's fundamental weaknesses.
McDiarmid duly serves up a feast of ripe over-acting, while Turner offers another in her now stock repertoire of blowsy, brassy performances, as they're set on a collision course of opposites.
He plays art expert Lionel Percy, a former director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, while she plays Maude Gutman - an unemployed, fifty-something bartender, living in the Sagebrush Trailer Park in California. They meet when he's called to rule on the authenticity of a painting she once acquired in a junk shop for just $3 that may (or may not) be a Jackson Pollock original.
Where all this will go is pretty obvious. But worse than that, it feels both phoney and unlikely. Why exactly would such a distinguished man fly all the way across the country to see a painting that he already suspects of being a fake? But then if the premise is improbable, so is the promise of a serious discussion on the art world and its workings. These two characters are hardly on the same page intellectually or emotionally, so it feels a contrivance too far to put them on the same stage.
Plays like John Logan's Red and Yasmina Reza's Art have made far more satisfying theatrical meals of the power and meaning of art respectively. This old-fashioned, talkative two-hander splashes in far shallower waters and left me feeling decidedly undernourished.
"In the final analysis Bakersfield Mist, neatly directed by Polly Teale and cleverly designed by Tom Piper, is too slight, and a touch too pleased with itself, to be fully satisfying. But, unlike the dubious picture at the play’s heart, the performances are definitely the genuine article."
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph
"Improbably fuelled by slugs of Jack Daniels and climaxing in an all-out wrestling match, the odd couple double-act is conveyed with expert comic gusto by Turner and McDiarmid."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Even if I found much of the play hard to believe, I enjoyed watching the two performers under Polly Teale's direction. Kathleen Turner, last seen on the London stage as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, is excellent as Maude."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"For much of the play’s 75 minutes the two characters merely seem to be restating their positions with increasing vigour. There are flashes of humour, but despite the strong performances Bakersfield Mist feels very slight."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard