Bette and Joan

Anton Burge's new play detailing the legendary rivalry between Davis and Joan Crawford raids their memoirs for titbits and regurgitates them as self-justifying monologues.

Holding forth alone in her dressing room, Bette Davis (Greta Scacchi) suddenly stops and asks, “Why am I doing this?” Why, indeed. Anton Burge’s new cut’n’paste job, sorry, play detailing the legendary rivalry between Davis and Joan Crawford certainly offers no answer. Aside from a couple of bitchy dialogue scenes, he simply plonks them down in adjoining dressing rooms on the set of “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?,” raids their memoirs for titbits and regurgitates them as self-justifying monologues. This is Davis and Crawford in their anecdotage.

Everyone, most especially the women themselves, was aware of the potential for trouble when the two fading stars signed on for the project. Their off-screen antics are now almost as famous as the movie.

For different reasons — Davis couldn’t give a damn, Crawford most certainly did — the very last thing either of these women needed was a confessional. But that’s what Burge delivers. Drawing almost exclusively on testimony from their autobiographies and interviews and from countless biographies, Burge cuts back and forth between the women as they prepare for a day’s shoot.

At first, the instant juxtaposition of diametrically opposing views of the same incidents/men/career raises laughs. But as soon as you realise that for every remark there is an equal and opposite remark, the law that springs most vividly to mind is that of diminishing returns.

What the cross-cutting never achieves is either tension or dramatic rhythm. Even towards the end when they turn maudlin, real emotion and engagement never happens because the script is too busy playing “compare and contrast.”

All their swipes at each other and the overexplanatory detailing of their dedication, disappointments and disastrous marriages are spoken as if to an interviewer. Yet why or when, let alone who he/she might be is never made plain.

All of which would be a touch academic if the performances transcended the material. Alas, Anita Dobson is bizarrely miscast. Her fluttery quality is at odds with Crawford’s physical heft, and although she aims herself squarely at Crawford’s control-freak monomania, her low-voiced, acid politeness is monotonously one-note.

The saving grace of Bill Alexander’s tepid production is Scacchi’s riveting turn as Davis. Released from her usual straitjacket of playing a beautiful leading lady, Scacchi captures Davis’s brittle timbre and the triumphant slice delivery of final consonants. Better yet, she seems to widen her face to echo the set of Davis’s jaw and she shifts her center of gravity to find the slightly dumpy swagger of Davis’s later life. Pulling her awkwardly girlish hair into its trademark side-clip, the impersonation is eerily strong.

In Dobson’s defence, Davis has all the writer’s sympathies. Not only is it clear that he believes her to be superior — an actress rather than a movie star — but he also presents her as a woman who ruthlessly undercuts her own grand status. Crawford, however, is seen as entirely delusional.

Who is this actually for? Audiences knowing nothing about the two of them won’t get the insider gags and knowing references to, say, Crawford’s childrearing skills as immortlized in “Mommie, Dearest.” Aficionados will have heard almost all the tittle-tattle before. The conclusion? Bio, yes. Drama? Barely.

Bette and Joan

Arts Theater, London; 350 seats; £34.50, $56.50 top

  • Production: An Ann Pinnington Productions in association with Andy Jordan Productions presentation of a play in two acts by Anton Burge. Directed by Bill Alexander.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Ruari Murchison; lighting, David Howe; sound, Mark Dunne; production stage manager, Helen Samways. Opened, reviewed May 10, 2011. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.
  • Cast: Joan Crawford - Anita Dobson<br/> Bette Davis - Greta Scaachi