Old 505 Theatre, March 6
“Son of a bitch”, yells Jeanette Cronin as she storms onto stage in the guise of screen legend Bette Davis.
It is 1939 and Davis is playing Queen Elizabeth I in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex opposite Errol Flynn. She had wanted Laurence Olivier but lost out there. However, she had her way when it came to the costumes, revealing that she had two sets made – one to placate the studio, another more extravagant collection that she actually wore.
From there, Queen Bette rewinds to the beginning to follow Davis’s career in fairly straightforward biographical fashion from New England girl to her triumphs on Broadway and onto Hollywood where she became a screen idol, starring in innumerable films including Of Human Bondage, Dangerous, All About Eve and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
The one-hour, one-woman docudrama was devised by Cronin and Peter Mountford, who drew on Davis’s 1962 autobiography The Lonely Life and various interviews that she did over the years. Mountford also produces and directs the show for G.Bod Theatre.
Cronin played Davis last year in John Misto’s play Dark Voyager at the Ensemble Theatre but comes into her own here as the iconic movie star. She bears more than a passing resemblance to Davis – in fact, the likeness is uncanny at times – and captures her clipped way of speaking and fierce presence.
Staged on a simple set with an old-fashioned dressing table in which the audience is reflected in the mirror, a hat stand, a portrait of Elizabeth I (who Davis played on screen twice) and a costume or two, Queen Bette doesn’t delve deeply personally or psychologically, though we do learn that she adored her struggling but ever-supportive mother. Nor does the show focus on the scuttlebutt and famous feuds.
What it gives us is a strong, lively impression of a formidable actor who was driven, combative and prepared to stand her own ground, even having a legal stoush with Warner Bros (which she lost).
It’s fascinating to hear about the importance of Martha Graham, who taught Davis dance as part of her theatre training, and who influenced the way she moved as an actor thereafter. We also see what a smart cookie she was, recognising very early on the importance of the talkies and that a different style of acting was required.
Cronin is constantly on the move, flitting, dancing, prowling and pacing around the stage. She hardly draws breath in a highly energetic performance. Apparently Davis had this kind of restless energy but as a piece of theatre it feels a bit relentless at times.
Nonetheless, Queen Bette is a very enjoyable entertainment about a fascinating woman.
Queen Bette plays at the Old Theatre 505 until March 15. Bookings: http://www.venue505.com/theatre