Edinburgh Fringe 2014
Jessica Sherr presents her one woman show celebrating the life of the formidable actress Bette Davis. The play is set on the night of the 1940’s Oscars ceremony, with the star coming to terms firstly with her rightly deserved nomination and then with the leaked knowledge of her losing the Best Actress Award.
The film and screen idol we all recognise as the fiery Bette Davis stubbornly refuses to attend the Oscar’s ceremony. Fully aware that she has provided a stunning performance in her latest film “Dark Victory”, it merely adds insult to injury that she already knows the winner of the category is Vivian Leigh in “Gone with the Wind”. Petulantly taking calls from her mother, who is seated at the Warner’s Brothers’ table despite Bette’s absence, she reminisces on how she got to this point, her own brilliance at points, and reveals a few regrets.
The piece begins with the star sulking and bemoaning the perceived personal slight of Vivian Leigh’s success. She can’t believe they had to go all the way to England to find the perfect actress to play the Southern Belle.
Pouring herself a stiff drink and sucking furiously on her faithful cigarette, she appreciatively whines to a picture of her favourite director, William Wyler, who had previously encouraged her to hone her craft in the epic film that was “Jezebel”, forcing her to make numerous takes until her character’s motivation was believable. At the same time she decries the men of the industry who rejected her, wanting her kept on the side-lines, and the chore of kissing endless leading men before it was decided that she was incompatible with everyone on screen.
Her frustration within this superficial industry is never more evident than her incessant campaigning to perform gritty challenging work which finds her at logger heads with her Warner’s Brothers contract. This infamously leads to the court case she lost when trying to escape the studio’s stranglehold. Her tumultuous ravings are interrupted by the phone as her mother tries to reason with her to attend the Oscars ceremony. Sounding every bit the little girl, she regularly slams the phone down, although always managing to give her mother advice on who to needle at the ceremony, just to be sure they don’t forget her. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to the young Bette Davis, Jessica Sherr shines in this one woman show. She captures the arrogant swagger that the star perfected on many a film set and curls her tongue around the drawling vitriol that she vents as her ego struggles to come to terms with her perceived rejection by Hollywood. Despite this being a young Bette Davis, she would have been 31 at this time in her career, the idiosyncrasies that the older actress displayed come to the surface. Sherr is regularly accompanied by the soundtrack of various snippets of dialogue from Davis’s illustrious career and this mirroring works perfectly when her blow-out in “Of Human Bondage” underpins her very real tantrums on the stage. Davis was well known for her cutting remarks against her peers, particularly Joan Crawford, and Sherr delivers these with the dry weary humour that the actress often enjoyed and exaggerated.
There are many highlights in this work, varying from the sublime costume changes as Sherr slips easily out of one costume and into another or, (my favourite moment) when the actress dons a trilby and curls up from the floor into the sleazy talent scout who spotted Davis in the theatre. His wise cracking patter luring the actress in and becoming the impetus to take her mother and her dog, “all actresses have a dog” to Hollywood.
It’s a solid piece with subtle light changes and sympathetic cues. Never more so than when Davis rejects her High school sweetheart as the ballad “Someone to Watch Over Me” laments in the back ground. The venue is near to full on the day I see the show, and like many other fringe venues, adjacent performances can sometimes be heard in the distance. These occasional interruptions did not sway Sherr from the task in hand however, and the audience clearly enjoyed hearing Davis’s iconic lines being delivered with conviction. A must for all Bette Davis fans.