“You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good. Joan Crawford is dead. Good.” The tumultuous relationship between screen icons Bette Davis and Joan Crawford is as fascinating as it is well documented. Both incredible actors, both incredible personalities, and both incredible in the gloriously melodramatic and high camp Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (one of my all-time favourite films incidentally). And it appears I’m not the only person to think so, if Foursight Theatre’s production of Bette & Joan: The Final Curtain is anything to go by.
It is 1989. Bette Davis is on her deathbed, surrounded by her two Oscars, a heavily depleted bottle of gin and a photo of her beloved daughter BD. Joan Crawford, now dead for a good 12 years, is stirred into action to ensure that her nemesis safely, and without fuss, travels with her to the other place. But as Joan can well testify, Bette is a stubborn old bird and is by no means a willing passenger. Instead they must first reminisce on what-mighta-beens, violent relationships, difficult daughters and Hollywood glitz. It’s highly charged and unashamedly camp stuff, and as such makes for riveting viewing.
Bette & Joan splices pleasingly between biography, segments from the film that defined them, and scenes of pure fantasy. What is clear throughout is that Sarah Thom as Davis and Sarah Toogood as Crawford have thoroughly done their research, and are having a great time on stage. They exchange venomous barbs and withering glances with expert precision (oh the irony if these two Sarahs hated each other too) yet are also fragile and delicate creatures. With every dagger they successfully jab through the other’s ribs, there is also a sense of their own fears and insecurities. These are three-dimensional individuals in a piece that could easily have lazily resorted to two-dimensional presentation.
Writer and co-devisor James Greaves deserves credit for what he has created, but perhaps he should have trusted the aura of Bette and Joan to carry the piece through, rather than bringing in two secondary characters Hedda and Louella (also played by Thom and Toogood via pre-recorded projection) as some kind of A Christmas Carol-esque visiting ghosts in the night. They just aren’t needed. That, and the poor sightlines of the St James’ Studio space aside, Bette & Joan is a grizzly treat for fans of all things kitsch. But maybe watch the brilliant film first.
Bette & Joan plays at the St James Theatre until 9 January. For more information and tickets, see the St James Theatre website.