I confess that although I’ve enjoyed watching Bette Davis on film, I know very little about her, other than her reputation as a bit of a diva. So it was fascinating to watch this play based on key incidents in her career, which challenged that reputation and put it in context.
Starting with her arrival in Hollywood, supported by her strong and determined mother, Bette immediately appears as independent, ambitious, and unafraid of voicing her opinions. The studio are more interested in her looks than her ability, but this is an attitude Bette refuses to bow to, and her early career is characterised by frequent spats with producer Jack Warner. Although he attempts to sideline her by casting her in second-rate films, Bette is not to be deterred, and succeeds in becoming one of the most famous, Oscar-winning actresses of the Golden Age of film. But it’s not without pain.
The play is cleverly structured so that an older Bette, drunk after winning an Oscar, reflects on the path of her career, which is told in a series of flashbacks. Confiding in lighting engineer Bud Gabrielli, she reveals the struggles she has faced but also the strength she gained from her mother’s support, which gave her the belief and commitment necessary to succeed as a woman in a man’s world. She has indeed had to be “more than a woman”. Counterpointed by Bud’s own story of his same-sex relationship, and how he has to disguise his true self from an intolerant society, the play highlights the flipside of the Golden Age and how people adopt different strategies in order to survive and thrive. It’s moving, and still very pertinent: the film industry is still rife with sexism, and homophobia is all too prevalent, so by holding up a mirror to the past it makes you recognise the continued struggles of the present. It’s also frequently funny – the character of Miss Murgatroyd, Warner’s secretary who cheekily subverts his instructions and his rages is brilliant, and the Catholic landlady Mrs O’Leary’s tirade against the “boy and his handyman” living upstairs is just hilarious.
The actors portraying all the roles in the play are excellent; Bette’s sheer physical presence, ably played by Francesca Leone and Emily Dilworth, is spot on, really conveying the feistiness of Bette as both a performer and a person. And Bryanie Whittingham-Ball as Miss Murgatroyd and starlet Miriam Hopkins almost steals the show. Ben Crome as Jack Warner clearly thoroughly enjoyed being nasty (although bested every time by Bette!) and Alex Hatcher’s role as Bud is nicely understated, hitting just the right note of genuine in an industry of fakery.
Russell’s play is finely observed and crafted with great affection for his subject, his passion for this era of film-making shining through. He commented to me after the play’s second performance that he wanted to portray strong women, and I certainly feel that he succeeded; Bette’s story is quite inspirational, and it’s given me a new perspective on the old films that I’ve watched (and will now seek out to watch as well). This is Russell’s first play to be performed, but I hope it’s the first of many – his blog at https://russelliney.wordpress.com/ charts his creative work and the play is available to watch on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITmPCh_011Q. Well done Russell on a brilliant début!
About the reviewer
Jo Westwood is a librarian, editor, writer, gardener and geek who loves curling up with a good book. As her job as a specialist children’s librarian means she reads at least one novel per day, that’s rather fortunate, and her obsession with the novels of Phil Rickman in particular is praise indeed. She’s currently working on creating a time travel device that will allow her to fit in even more reading, as there are far too many good books and rather less time in which to read them than she would like. Jo's blogs at anniseed.com