Queen Jeanette: Review of G.bod Theatre’s Queen Bette
Bette Davis (1908-1989) was an icon of the golden age of Hollywood, and is today recognized as one of the all-time greats. Vivacious and fiery, Davis was never afraid to go against the grain and in a period when actresses were unwilling to accept unsympathetic characters, Davis relished the opportunity, seeing the roles as a chance to showcase her versatility.
Queen Bette (2015) is a one woman show devised and directed by Peter Mountford, and performed by Jeanette Cronin. The play charts her journey, from her parents’ divorce and performance tuition, to her first exposure to the theatre and beyond. We see her as the lively and starry-eyed girl stepping onto a stage for the first time, through to her early forays into film, leading into the bitter legal battles with Warner Brothers, until we finally come to the jaded actress reputed to be the biggest bitch in Hollywood, but who was still determined to push on. For people unfamiliar with the story of Davis this show will enlighten and entertain, as Cronin runs the gauntlet of Davis’ life.
The title ‘Queen Bette’ is apt when used to describe Jeanette Cronin. First and foremost, Cronin looks the part, and spectacularly so. From her prominent Bette Davis eyes to her smoky deep tambour, Cronin is a dead ringer. However, the most impressive thing is Cronin’s relentless energy and pursuit of perfection. Cronin is Davis in the flesh and similarly, her performance is difficult to fault. Though certainly older, Cronin is perfectly fluid and moves about the stage with ease. The physicality of the piece has evidently been crafted by a pro, and Mountford should be given due credit. But likewise, Cronin never misses a beat, and matches every move with gusto. Her vitality allows her to seamlessly shift in and out of characters, both aged and youthful, whilst mapping the coarseness that Davis acquired over the years. Cronin captured the cheek and sexiness that was Bette Davis, whilst lacing her performance with Davis’ stoicism and complexity. The famous cackle is just the cherry on top of a flawless piece of theatre.
Both set and costume were a pleasure to behold, showing once again the versatility of the Old 505 space. Entering into what looks like an old fashioned dressing room, the wooden floors and dim lighting sets the scene for an intimate look at Bette’s life and work. Littered with trinkets and photographs, a large mahogany dressing table stands marvelously lit in the centre, whilst chairs and suitcases are randomly set about the space. Cronin enters with the bottom half of an exquisite copy of a Queen Elizabeth gown, the corset hanging on a mannequin to the side of the stage. Cronin finds herself in a laced performance leotard, and various rehearsal skirts greet the audience in the process. Everything feels right, where nothing is out of place.
Queen Bette tells the whole story. And this is possibly its only fault. Unfortunately, a string of events from a person’s life does not a story make. The piece is entertaining and well performed, but aside from giving a chronology of Davis’ assent to stardom there is little else to be taken from it. Ultimately Mountford seems unsure of the story he is trying to tell. As a result, there are several themes he grapples with, but none of them quite collate. At one point, we get the feeling that perhaps the story was really about Davis’ mother and how she acted as the true architect of her life, but Ruth Davis is absent for large swathes the play, so this probably wasn’t Mountford’s intent. This isn’t a massive fault, but towards the end of the piece the play begins to unravel structurally (it effectively has three endings). This may have been avoided if there was a specific story being told about one aspect of Davis’ life. After all, a string of events is hardly telling of what or who a person was. To find greater meaning we have to pick and choose; we have to construct a story.
Queen Bette is nevertheless a fine piece: the dialogue and the delivery all feel right. Cronin delivers a virtuoso performance that more than gives justice to the great Bette Davis, and that alone is reason to go and see it.
Queen Bette is playing at the Old 505 Theatre as part of the Mardi Gas festival until the 15th of March. For more information see: http://www.venue505.com/theatre