Stars explained

* A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane

Half stars fall between the ratings


A matter of laugh and death

bette and joan

Susie May Lynch, in that glorious gold dress, as Joan Crawford, with Denise Phillips as the dying Bette Davis, with Eléna Serafinas as Hedda Hopper perched in the background. Pictures: Photoalexart

Bette and Joan (the Final Curtain)

Grange Players

Granger Playhouse, Walsall


AS feuds go the animosity between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford is the stuff of legend. In the golden age of movies they were rival queen bees in the Hollywood hive -  and a gossip columnist’s dream.

This was not only a professional rivalry, Davis saw herself as an actress and Crawford merely as a star, but was personal, with stolen lovers and husbands left in its wake. It came to a head when the pair, already the best of enemies, made What ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962.

The now cult status film was about aged sisters, former child star Jane, played by Davis, looking after her latterly more famous and now crippled film star sister, Blanche, Crawford’s part. The nursing consisted of a less than sympathetic mix of violence and cruelty.

There was surprise that first Crawford wanted Davis, and then that Davis accepted the role but in truth both were equally in desperate need of the movie. Their careers were in steep decline – roles, certainly starring roles, for actresses fast approaching 60 were few and far between and their days as leading ladies were just memories. The dark, psychological thriller, for a while, brought them back into the limelight they craved, and it saw Davis receive her tenth Oscar nomination and a chance to add a third statuette to her collection.

Crawford was furious she had been overlooked and called every other nominee for Best Actress to offer to collect their Oscar if they won and could not attend, eventually going denise Phillips as Bette Davson stage on behalf of winner Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker, to the chagrin of Davis who had not only lost out to Bancroft but had seen her rival on stage collecting an Oscar, if only by proxy.

The film is the cornerstone of James Greaves play and brings with it inevitable flaws for those unfamiliar with a 52 year old cult classic, for example the finale with Bette and Joan eating strawberry ice cream cornets with a seaside backdrop is not only incongruous but totally incomprehensible, a real What the . . . moment - unless you had seen, and more importantly, remembered the ending of the film enough to realise its significance.

With Denise Phillips revelling in the bitchy, acerbic Davis, and Susie May Lynch a more conciliatory, more glamorous – love the stunning gold evening dress - and more subtle Crawford, still a bitch mind, the play mirrors the film to some extend borrowing some dialogue and some ideas, even down to the final “We could have been friends”.

Denise Phillips as Bette Davis in the wig, lipstick and child star dress of Baby Jane Hudson in the 1962 thriller

It is all mixed in with Hollywood gossip of the time and well known quotes such as Davis on Crawford: “She slept with everyone on the lot at MGM . . . except Lassie". And there are some wonderful little gestures as the pair show their mutual disdain.

It is a pity though that Greaves did not delve more deeply into the two characters to take us beyond the bitchy comments and wisecracks. The pair delivered them with impeccable timing and some deliciously measured pauses, particularly from Phillips, but we never really got beyond that Hollywood inspired veneer where studio fact and fiction intertwined. There was nothing new to be discovered, no revelations or less travelled byways explored.

When we did glimpse beneath the armour towards the end, as Davis and Crawford talked about their famiies, you felt the cast were capable of delivering much more than the play had asked of them.

The format is pure whimsy, with Crawford, dead ten years, sent back to earth in 1989 to escort the dying Davis to wherever it is that dead stars go when they shuffle off their mortal coils.

Crawford is sent down (or maybe up?) by Hollywood Gossip columnists Luella Parsons, the first of the genre, and her later bitter rival Hedda Hopper, who it seems are still manipulating reputations in the afterlife.

Parsons, played by Liz Plumpton, and Hopper, Eléna Serafinas, first appear in a projection of intentionally flickering, faded film, as if we are watching some long lost 1940’s newsreel. The initial  sound could have been a bit clearer but it fitted in well with the idea.

The projection on a back wall was used extensively by director Claire Armstrong-Mills to put things into context with dates, to show snatches of interviews of the characters and crackly, faded original films of the real stars, as well as that beach ending.

The pair, who had a feud perhaps even more vitriolic than Crawford and Davis, then appear on stage atop two staircases, one at either side of the stage, representing, one assumes, stairways to heaven . . . or are we aiming our sights too high again with this sniping quartet?

The device has a problem in that it results in a set with two staircases rising to a blank wall, which looksSusie May Lynch as Joan Crawford decidedly odd and seems to serve only as raised seats for the celestial columnists.

The rest of the set is Davis’s bedroom in her final hours, or they should be final, except she is refusing to die on cue despite Crawford’s pleading in her latest starring role as the hereafter holidays tour guide.

Through that scenario the pair spar their way through episodes in their life, with a clever sequence almost like movie retakes as Crawford slowly draws from Davis how her second (of four, the same as Crawford collected) husband, Arthur Farnsworth, had died.

Susie May Lynch as Joan Crawford looking for help from a higher authority in persuading Bette Davis to die

We have flashbacks with scenes on the set of Baby Jane, and at the detested Oscar ceremony, and from earlier spats in lives that seemed always be drawn together.

The pair had more in common than merely the number of husbands, both had daughters they once doted on in public but who they had written out of wills in later life and who published highly unflattering accounts of their mothers.

And if Crawford was believed both were born within a few months of each other in 1908, the date on Crawford’s tombstone, although 1906 (the date of birth in Crawford’s school records) is a more likely date.

The play, from 2011, appeared in the Edinburgh Festival three months after Bette and Joan, Anton Burge’s play which was a two hander set in the adjoining dressing rooms on the Baby Jane set – you wait for one play and two along come – and both probably suffer from the same problem that neither star means much these days to people without a bus pass.

And at the end anyone who knew nothing, or very little beyond the names about Davis and Crawford, would hardly have known much more as they drove home. It was funny, biting, but somehow unsatisfying. Neither Phillips nor Lynch had enough in the script to really make us care about their characters beyond where the next laugh was coming from.

As a production it was still finding its feet with a few audio visual hiccoughs not helping to settle things down and it lacks a bit of pace at times, although it picked up after the interval, but the foundations are there and there is plenty of time for the play to find its natural, comfortable rhythm. It is an enjoyable evening with some wonderfully bitchy and very funny reworking of the verbal sparring of two of the biggest names in Hollywood from a time when quotes were shot from the hip rather than massaged and marketed by managers and spin doctors. To 15-11-14

Roger Clarke


Home Reviews A-Z Reviews by affiliate