Bette & Joan

9th to 16th March 2024

Anton Burge | OldburyREP Theatre | Directed by Paul Steventon-Marks

Hollywood blazes into life on the OldburyRep stage as arch-rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford battle it out on set.

Behind the scenes of what would become a cult classic, the action of Anton Burge’s 2011 play unfolds in two dressing rooms on the set of ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane’. It is 1962 and the decades-long feud between the two divas is well known. The origins of the animosity can be traced back all the way to 1935 when, on the set of ‘Dangerous’, Davis became involved with Crawford’s fiancé Franchot Tone. The rest, as they say, is history. A very long and bitter history. The battle lines were drawn and, in Burge’s play, we see the impact of the ongoing rivalry years later when both women are careering towards ‘has-been’ status.

Director and stage designer Paul Steventon-Marks has created a cavernous set which feels remarkably like a working Hollywood studio. The two dressing rooms, elevated on platforms and reached via steps, seem to be neither in the real world or the film world. The imagined conversations between these two women are full of the caustic bitchiness we expect and there are plenty of laughs but, particularly in the second half, we see vulnerability too. It’s a heady mix and works brilliantly in this production thanks to excellent performances from Carol Deakin as Bette Davis and Sue Portsmouth as Joan Crawford.

Combining glamour and ruthlessness, Portsmouth’s Crawford is every inch the diva. She works the audience in the theatre in the same way she works her adoring fans, rarely letting us ‘in’ to see or know who she really is. Does she even know? Her desperate need for approval is captured in the fluttering of long lashes and her physicality, always on the verge of flirtation with us and possibly even Bette. It’s an impressive performance and, when she speaks about her childhood and hatred of her mother, a moving one.

Channelling the ‘Queen of Hollywood’, Carol Deakin is a wonderfully convincing Bette Davis. She embodies the famously abrupt and funny actress perfectly, her clipped voice and eyes capturing the fierce independence of this icon. A dominating presence on stage, she lands the laughs (“she has slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie”) but more importantly the anger. Hollywood was, and still is, an industry dominated by men and Davis’ rage at being sidelined by a new generation of young blond film stars is palpable.

But this is not a show dominated by one performance: it’s the powerful chemistry between the two which makes it work so well. Simmering underneath the sniping, the manipulation and the “vitriolic bitchcraft” (the director’s perfect phrase, not mine) are two vulnerable women who have more in common than they’d ever admit. Tantalising glimpses of their regrets and insecurities make this a satisfying and darkly funny play.

A professionally staged production not to be missed. Bette and Joan continue to battle it out in style at the OldburyRep theatre until Saturday 16th March 2024.

Bette & Joan