At some point, we will all have to face our own mortality and accept that it’s time to bring down the final curtain on our lives. When that moment comes, what could be better than being assisted on our trip through the veil by an old friend? So begins “Bette and Joan: The Final Curtain” at the St James Studio.
It’s 1989 and Bette Davis (Sarah Thom) is dying. Lying on her couch, she looks at a picture of her beloved daughter and knows the end is near. However, she wouldn’t be Bette Davis if she was willing to give up easily and this lady is not going to go quietly. The people running the after-life (Hedda and Louella) decide to dispatch a guide to Earth to assist Bette in crossing to the other side. In a twist of naughtiness, the heavenly emissary is not a friend, or even someone Bette likes, but is instead her arch-nemesis Joan Crawford (Sarah Toogood). Now, like many people, I have never seen “What Became of Baby Jane” but for some reason I do know it starred Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. I also ‘know’ that their names are linked together as one of the great movie double acts of all time and yet, as I discovered in this wonderful show, they only did the one film together.
Joan has her work cut out trying to not only connect with Bette – a woman she loathes and for whom the feeling is obviously mutual – but also convince her to kick the proverbial bucket – and somehow the thought of eternity with Joan doesn’t quite sell the idea to Bette. The two of them relive their lives – after all, you can’t actually die until your life has flashed before your eyes apparently – and find they have as much in common as they do to divide them or do they?
Walking in to the St James Studio, it was obvious that this was going to be a great show. The set, Bette’s boudoir with the lady herself lying on her couch gently moaning in pain and managing to elicit sympathy from the hushed audience before the lights had gone down, is lovely and makes perfect use of the stage with a wonderful, almost Narnian, wardrobe being an important part of the action. Thanks to some innovative use of video, both the Sarahs not only played Bette and Joan, but also interacted with themselves in the roles of Hedda and Louella. The direction by Rebecca McCutcheon and Sarah Thom is tight and manages to capture the reality of Bette and Joan and their amazingly bitchy relationship. At times, their sniping is pretty vicious, with some almost unforgivable things being said by both characters about the other, but underlying it all, there is almost a feeling of mutual respect between the two ladies as they acknowledge the things they had to do to achieve their fame. The story is told with great humour right the way through, from start to literally the last minute of the play, and the two Sarahs deserve massive plaudits for their astonishing performances bringing the two icons to life.
My knowledge of both Bette and Joan was increased exponentially by seeing this well researched and written play. However, there was also so much more than simply a biography. The power of the ‘Studio System’ which I had heard of but never really understood came across amazingly well – particularly in Bette’s description of the death of her 2nd husband. Another important factor that was explored in some depth is the importance of recognition for actors, and the need for acclamation by their fellow thespians through awards such as the Oscars – something I’m sure hasn’t changed that much over the years. In fact, this show was not only highly entertaining but a wonderful slice of Hollywood history.
“Bette and Joan” is the first play in the “Icons” season running from the 5th to the 25th January at the St James and, going on tonight’s performance has set a high standard for the other 4 plays in the season to match. I look forward to seeing more of them.
Review by Terry Eastham
Bette & Joan: The Final Curtain
03 – 09 January 2015
Running Time: 1 hour 20 minutes approx without an interval
“You should only say good of the dead. Joan Crawford is dead. Good.” Bette Davis
Devised and performed by Sarah Thom and Sarah Toogood, script written by James Greaves.
The productions is co-directed by Rebecca McCutcheon & Sarah Thom. It was originally created by Foursight and presented by Angels in the Architecture in association with S² and Jacksons Lane. Press are invited to review on Tuesday 06 January at 7.45pm.
Now on her own deathbed, Davis is forced by Hollywood hacks Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons to confront the ghost of her nemesis, Crawford herself. And of course, just because someone’s dead doesn’t mean they’ve changed…
This critically acclaimed swan-song of one of the UK’s foremost collaborative companies, Foursight Theatre; Bette and Joan: The Final Curtain is a wry, feisty and irreverent look at two of Hollywood’s greatest icons and their equally famous feud.
Wednesday 7th January 2015