Bette and Joan by Anton Burge

Bette and Joan charts the relationship between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford while they make the film ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’ The film is a psychological thriller about a bitter, lifelong rivalry between two sisters, both actors. This play, Bette and Joan is set in their Hollywood dressing rooms in the sixties, while they are shooting the film, and is an intensely personal look into the hidden lives of the two stars. Both women are now in their fifties and suffice it to say, they are not best friends.

Bette Davis
Photo with kind permission of Miles Davis photography.

Emmie Spencer gives a masterful performance as Bette Davis in Bette and Joan and it’s excellent to see her in a leading role. She has real presence: she is a seasoned actor in the Brighton Little Theatre company and starred humorously as the Nurse in Shakespeare in Love. In Bette and Joan she is always in command, only speaks when necessary, has the best lines, she’s occasionally acerbic and hard pressed on every side. Bette often plays strong women, sometimes villains, and chooses her friends very carefully.

Bridget Ane Lawrence, educated in Chicago and New York, gives a compelling performance as the beautiful and, at times, hysterical Joan Crawford. Both Lawrence and Spencer often perform at the New Venture Theatre in Brighton.

Joan is proud of her appearance and lacks the strong, core stability of Bette Davis. If Bette Davis resembles a contemporary Adele, strong, private and uncompromising, Joan Crawford is highly-strung: a pleaser, more akin to a brunette Marilyn Monroe with slightly less talent.

In the first half of Bette and Joan, Bette Davis has the upper hand. Joan Crawford’s strength becomes more apparent after the interval, revealing a metal beneath her fragile presentation. The mood becomes more reflective, both stars looking back on men they have loved and lost, not least Clark Gable. There is a sense that loneliness is the price of fame for these pre-eminent women.

Joan Crawford
With kind permission of Miles Davies Photography.

Direction by Ann Atkins is excellent, as are the costumes put together by a team of three including Glenys Stuart. Steven Adams designed the set which represents an intimate look inside Hollywood.

Anton Burge wrote the script which is littered with references to Bette and Joan’s shows. I would have liked to see more of a resolution at the end and more context into how the film was received. Burge specialises in writing about famous women. He directed Mrs. Pat starring Dame Penelope Keith at Chichester Festival Theatre. In 2011, Bette and Joan opened in the West End starring Greta Scacchi and Anita Dobson.

I recommend this play, Bette and Joan, the audience loved it – it may be set in the sixties, but the themes of friendship, rivalry, aging, love and loss are timeless.

Brighton Little Theatre
Tuesday 05 to Saturday 09 March 2024
Photos by Miles Davies Photography

This article was first published on Brighton Source, the going out Bible.