Bette And Joan At The Oldbury Rep

If you loved the classic book, ‘Bette and Joan, the Divine Feud‘* by Shaun Considine, and adored the TV series *which starred Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, then the stage play Bette and Joan by Anton Burge, that was staged last week at the Oldbury Rep would definitely have been right up your street. A two header, starring two of the brightest stars in Midland Repertory theatre, Carol Deakin and Sue Portsmouth, this is the funny, often rude, yet sad and poignant story of two legendary stars, now the wrong side of 40, filming a story that is destined to be an iconic, camp, classic, ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’ The two actresses have a long history in film together, and, quite frankly hate each other, although there is also a grudging respect too. This is the backstage story, that also tells us a lot about the lives of the two ageing Queen’s of Hollywood, and why it was that their feud became the stuff of legends.

Bette Davis * and Joan Crawford* both made it big in Hollywood in the early 1930’s, with a string of classic films. But whereas Bette considered herself to be an actress, a thespian with a background in theatre and drama, Joan Crawford was never less than a movie star, never off duty, never less than glamorous, signing each and every autograph by hand. Davis resented Joan’s beauty and sex appeal, Crawford resented Bette’s talent, and so they sniped at each other in magazines and interviews. Bette and Joan captures this relationship perfectly, from the one-upmanship that they exhibited when on the set, to Bette undermining Joan by having director Robert Aldrich’s ear, to Joan sewing weights into her dress when Bette, as Baby Jane, needed to lift Blanche from her wheelchair. Joan is gentile, glamorous and never less than a lady (although Bette doesn’t refrain from mentioning Joan’s early blue movies which belay that image, and also saying that the only person Joan didn’t sleep with at MGM was Lassie!), Bette on the other hand, is often foul mouthed and uncouth, dropping the F word and c bomb with unplomb. Carol Deakin and Sue Portsmouth capture all this perfectly, they are funny, brilliant women who can deliver each barb with the relish they deserve. They look uncannily like Bette and Joan, and have their mannerisms and affectations spot on.

Bette and Joan is often a hoot, with the bare, backstage set of adjacent dressing rooms that serve the story so well – all the attention is on the actresses rather than their setting. But there is also an element of sadness to the story that lends a real pathos – Bette needs to work, she needs the money to support her family, whilst Joan is desperately lonely after the death of Alfred Steele. As a portrayal of how Hollywood treated its brightest stars once they were no longer in their first flush of youth, this is a damning, although often hilarious, indictment.

*Amazon links


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